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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

The rising cost of housing in Tampa is hampering efforts to end homelessness

Rows of tents under a tree.
Daylina Miller
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WUSF Public Media
At a forum on homelessness in Ybor City on Tuesday, community leaders said Tampa's lack of affordable housing is the biggest barrier to solving the issue.

Community leaders at a forum in Tampa this week said the affordable housing crisis is making it harder for them to help people experiencing homelessness. And they expect the number of people in need to grow.

Tampa’s housing boom is causing a lot of challenges for advocates working to end homelessness in the city. Community leaders talked about the issue during a public forum at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City on Tuesday evening.

“Right now the biggest barrier [to addressing homelessness] is around affordable housing. We have to have places to move people to,” said Christine Long, chief programs officers at Metropolitan Ministries. “Huge numbers of households, families, are falling into homelessness because of our affordable housing situation.”

Other panelists echoed her sentiments, including Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI).

The group previously had success incentivizing landlords to rent to people without housing by doing what Hayes-Triplett called “speed leasing” events. THHI would guarantee a year’s rent would be paid and had a risk mitigation fund to reimburse landlords in case tenants damaged the apartments, which Hayes-Triplett said they only had to tap into once.

Then the pandemic began and demand for housing in the region skyrocketed.

“Now we don’t have speed leasing because it’s too expensive,” Hayes-Triplett said. “Prior to the pandemic, we had Bay Area Apartments Association bringing 100 units to the table. Since the pandemic, we have not had the speed leasing event because there’s no units available.”

She said landlords are sometimes asking for five-times the security deposit up front, which she said has been “crazy.” THHI has also bought homes in the past for a shared living program for elderly veterans in need.

But competition and the strict requirements involved with using government funds to buy property has allowed outside developers to snatch up affordable properties before the initiative can get to them.

“We need more units; we need more inventory in our community. The solution to homelessness is housing,” said Hayes-Triplett.

Group of people sit in a row on a stage. Above on a projector screen is an image of a tent city for homeless individuals. A man wearing a mask is providing someone in a tent services.
Stephanie Colombini
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Experts on homelessness and city leaders gathered for a public forum in Ybor City on Tuesday.

More people could lose their homes

According to THHI, more than 600 people were living on the streets in the county as of 2020, which is less than previous years. Hayes-Triplett attributes that in part to the county adding shelter beds and other efforts.

But she expects the number of people without housing will grow as rents rise and pandemic relief goes away.

The Tampa Housing Authority offers low-income families homes at affordable rates and dedicates some units to prioritize homeless individuals, explained Margaret Jones, the director of assisted housing. But demand significantly overwhelms supply.

When the authority opened a waitlist for Section 8 voucher housing for one week in October, Jones said more than 18,000 people applied. In an effort to limit false hope, she said they used a lottery system to add 3,000 people to the waitlist.

“The biggest statement I heard from families was that, ‘There are investors coming in, they're buying my apartment, they’re buying my home, they're raising my rent, I can’t afford it. What am I going to do?’” said Jones.

The city of Tampa has spent millions in pandemic relief funds to help families on the brink of homelessness, according to housing and community development manager Kayon Henderson.

Reaching people where they are

The city is also expanding its outreach efforts to those currently without housing.

Henderson introduced members of the Homeless Services Team at the forum. It includes new community liaisons who will walk the streets and respond to calls about individuals in need. They can then connect these people to services like food, health care and shelter.

“We realized that we have to be able to meet people where they are and not always expect people to come to us,” said Henderson.

The city also touted Tampa Hope, run by Catholic Charities. It opened late last year near Ybor City and shelters more than 100 people in tents while providing them resources to find permanent housing.

Individuals staying at Tampa Hope have case managers who guide them in their transition. Community groups provide meals, health care services, GED classes and other services.

“We pride ourselves in our partnerships, nothing that Catholic Charities does we do alone,” said executive director Maggie Rogers.

Mayor Jane Castor said 25% of individuals who have gone through the Tampa Hope program have found permanent housing and 20% are employed.

“We’re really looking at this as a model that we feel we’ll be able to address the issues in our community,” said Castor.

Members of the public were invited to ask questions and while many focused on how to help homeless individuals and address the housing crisis in Tampa, others voiced concerns about people on the street disrupting businesses, particularly in downtown Tampa.

Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Conner said her department is working with mental health providers to respond to calls in more compassionate ways.

Panelists said it’s critical government, law enforcement and community organizations work together to tackle these issues. They urged the public to do their part by donating money, volunteering their time or helping connect people with resources.

How to get help

Crisis Center of Tampa Bay - 211

City of Tampa Housing and Community Development - 813-274-8960

Hillsborough County Homeless and Community Services - 813-274-6834

Catholic Charities - 813-631-4370

Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative - 813-341-9101