Lawmakers and advocates for more than a decade have done battle with the homeless crisis among military veterans.
Their number in the Tampa Bay region has been cut by 72 percent and in half statewide, but a U.S. House subcommittee meeting in New Port Richey Monday heard that more work needs to be done.
Among those testifying was Danny Burgess Jr., executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We do a really good job, I believe, in the military of teaching service members to put their uniforms on, but maybe not as good of a job teaching them how to take it off,” he said. “And so I believe it is absolutely mission critical that we have a more structured unified approach to that, as opposed to ... just kind of the check the box-type approach.”
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity has now held two field hearings on veteran homelessness, the first in Oceanside, California.
Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
Bilirakis and subcommittee Chairman Mike Levin (D-California) heard about problems impacting the homelessness rate, from bank loans for affordable housing to the problems of counting homeless veterans accurately.
Michael Raposa is the chief executive officer of St. Vincent DePaul CARES, a nonprofit that provides homelessness and poverty services throughout the Tampa Bay region.
He said the problem is made worse by Florida legislators misspending affordable housing reserves, called the Sadowski Trust Fund.
“If we could convince the state of Florida to release the Sadowski Trust Fund, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” Raposa said. “Our local health authorities wouldn't have to grovel to get the money to fulfill the mission, which they're funded to do and they're supposed to be doing. And the federal government wouldn't have to come in and save us.”
Over the past decade, that fund has seen $2 billion diverted for other uses.
For Mary White, taking off the uniform ended up with her as a single mother who was homeless.
White told lawmakers how she tried juggling graduate school and keeping a job that paid enough for housing. But paying for child care was her biggest challenge.
“Without that I would have been stuck,” said White. “One, trying to find a part-time job that I can actually find somebody to take care of my child and afford it. I wouldn't have been able to go to school or even have a full-time job.”
White said she was able to complete her master's degree with the help of several government programs and nonprofits.
But it was not easy, she said. Transportation was also an issue. And she had to be her own advocate and sleuth to both find and navigate numerous programs that offered much needed help. She is now pursuing a license in social work.
Lawmakers also heard about problems with the banking system that make it very difficult for housing authorities to construct new affordable housing.
“It’s access to capital, quite frankly, to build affordable veterans housing units for families,” testified David Lambert, chairman of the Pasco County Housing Authority.
“Just take a look at our project we're going to build ... on Massachusetts Avenue (in New Port Richey). But banks will not lend us money even though the county has put a million dollars behind this project. We're not designed to make money. We're designed to exist and to try to provide affordable housing communities for our most at-risk population.”
Five counties in Florida – Flagler, Volusia, Lee, Miami-Dade and Charlotte – have reached what is termed "functional zero," eliminating homelessness among their veteran populations.
Functional zero means that an annual survey of the homeless includes no veterans. But advocates at the hearing pointed out that the annual survey used does not include veterans living in cars or sleeping on friends’ couches, as well as homeless people who will not participate in surveys or cannot be found.
The current method of counting the homeless needs revision, they said.
“It's a snapshot,” said St. Vincent DePaul's Raposa. “And it is not an accurate portrayal. The challenge with functional zero was that many thought it was a one-time thing that we reached, you grab the brass ring, mission accomplished. And we move forward."
“That is not what the communities have seen, especially here in Florida and in California,” he added. “We are two target communities because of our palm trees and our mild winters. And we see about a 23 percent increase in homelessness in the wintertime.”