A plan to end chronic homelessness, 10 years later

By: Mariel Carbone
November 16, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV)—More than a decade ago a national movement sparked action here in Tallahassee.

The George W. Bush administration began pushing an initiative for cities across the country to create ten year plans to end chronic homelessness. Tallahassee followed in suit, spending two years creating its own plan, and releasing it in November 2006.

"We came up with the program, which was admittedly over ambitious, but we felt we had to be if we were going to tackle the issue regarding homelessness,” said then Mayor John Marks.

In December of 2004 Marks created a task force to end chronic homelessness. On that force, input from the Department of Children and Families, Florida Coalition for the Homeless, 211 Big Bend, Tallahassee Housing Authority, Big Bend Care, private individuals, businesses and so many more.

Marks said he felt compelled to start the plan after touring the Cold Nights Shelter.

“After I got through with that tour, I was just, I thought we could do better. I wanted to do better,” he said.

Marks joined with the late Kay Freeman, who was with the Big Bend Homeless Coalition, and got to work. The mission of the task force, “to develop, disseminate and monitor a plan to end chronic homelessness.”

At the time, at least 739 children and adults were experiencing homelessness in the Capital City. The plan identifies 398 as adults and 341 as children. Of this amount, 26 percent of the adults were chronically homeless. The chronically homeless are people who have been homeless for a year or more and have a disability; or who have had four or more episodes of homelessness in the course of three years and have a disability.

The top four factors contributing to this in Tallahassee were lack of affordable housing, unemployment or underemployed, family break up and lack of adequate transportation.

Statewide, there were an estimated 83,391 men, women and children who were homeless on any given day. The top four factors causing this, were believed to be lack of affordable housing, underemployment/unemployment, family break up and medical or mental health related issues.

To help eradicate this, the task force laid out three primary components to address. Prevention, which included affordable housing, income, health and well-being and transportation; intervention, including assessment, service provision and community infrastructure; and community awareness, meaning to educate, engage and mobilize the public.

Marks said the top priority in the plan: housing.

“You’ve got to provide a stable environment for any individual- I don’t care who it is- to succeed or to move forward or to progress, to be a benefit to society,” he said. “And that begins with a place to live, to go back to, to eat, sleep. And so yes, that’s the top priority. That was the top priority that was in our plan, to get them a place to stay.”

Susan Pourciau, Director of Florida Homeless Training and Technical Assistance, said taking the “housing first approach” is accepted as the best way to tackle chronic homelessness.

“That means the first thing you focus on is helping them get into an apartment,” said Pourciau. “After which you provide services to that person to help them stay in the apartment.”

She said this idea of thinking started to become widely accepted right around the time these ten year plans began. And, she said some big strides have been made in the Big Bend region over the past decade.

“About 15 to 20 percent of the homeless population is chronically homeless at any point in time. But, the Big Bend area, we currently, as of 2016, that number is more like 10 percent. So compared to other communities, we on average have a lower chronic rate in the big bend area then other communities do,” she said.

But, homelessness is still a problem.

In the most recent point in time survey, the Big Bend Homeless Coalition found that 234 men, women and children were homeless in Tallahassee. That was taken January 25, 2016. Of that group, 78 are chronically homeless.

According to the plan, that number should be closer to zero, as the ten years are up.

Marks admitted the plan fizzled out soon after its creation. And no follow up ever really happened.

“Obviously it should’ve happened. I don’t know why that wasn’t done on a year by year basis,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe circumstances change, maybe things change over time.”

But, he said the plan was not a total loss.

“If there is a success story out of this, it’s that it was a catalyst of some sort, it was a spearhead for other individuals to recognize that we could indeed address it and address it successfully,” said Marks.

He highlights people like Rick Kearney, who created the Kearney Center, an emergency services center. He calls the center a “public-private” partnership, and said relationships like these can be the best way to handle homelessness.

“If you can get public-private partnership, they’re always a lot better than having one entity addressing an issue like this. Public-private partnerships work in these kinds of endeavors,” said Marks.

The Kearney Center opened in April 2015 and sometimes houses 350 people a night.

It offers those seeking shelter a place to stay, hot meals, laundry, a shower, computer and communication services and more. There is substance abuse counseling, domestic violence services and GED classes. Outside individuals come in to offer their services, like resume building and bicycle repairs; and some specific counseling agencies are housed right at the center.

“What I think is amazing about Tallahassee, and what we’ve been able to do is come together as a collective voice and collective effort to assist, advocate and address homelessness and poverty in our community,” said Monique Ellsworth, Director of the Kearney Center. “I think that has happened largely because of a willingness of partnering agencies to collaborate and begin to work towards addressing homelessness in a more holistic fashion.”

But, although the homeless now have a resource like the center to offer help, one big problem still remains; a problem identified as the “top priority” of the plan ten years ago.

“I think that the greatest barrier that our community has to ending homelessness is available, affordable, and livable housing options. So that inventory exists in Tallahassee, but it’s very small when compared to the need that exists in Tallahassee,” said Ellsworth.

And, those who have and are living through it, agree.

"There should be more affordable housing, and people should make sure they are kept up and clean for the people who live there. Even if they are just efficiencies; there are not efficiencies here in Tallahassee,” said Willie Aikens.

Aikens was staying at the Kearney Center, and eventually found a place of his own. But, the task, not easy.

“All the new apartments and things are catering to the students. What about the people that live here and are trying to get back on their feet?” he said.

City and state agencies are at hand to help get people into affordable housing, however most have long wait lists, and some are even closed lists. The Tallahassee Housing Authority alone has 2,100 people on its list.

A sign more work needs to be done.

“Have we eradicated homelessness in Tallahassee – no, we have not. Have we moved positively to eradicate homelessness, are we better off than we were say ten years ago? Absolutely. And that’s because individuals in this community care,” said Marks.

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