We’re Number 1! We’re Number 1! Tampa Has the Highest Homelessness Rates in Mid-Sized Cities in the United States of America

This is the third of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Joshua Hall chose to write about Tampa …

Homelessness is a problem which affects cities on many different levels. It tugs at the heartstrings of those people fortunate enough to have a stable home and livelihood whilst it also costs the local government, and therefore the tax paying citizens, in attempts to rectify the problem.

However, shock horror; the local government in Tampa doesn’t always try to solve the problem through correct channels. Instead scandal has reared its ugly head as social services director Sam Walthour has been sacked for paying Port Authority Chairman William Brown around $600000 to fund his bug-infested, unfit for purpose trailer park for homeless people to squat in. If this wasn’t shady enough, the money came directly out of the Tampa homeless recovery project fund!

Now, with the pitiful pair of Walthour and Brown out of the picture, things are potentially looking brighter as Mayor Bob Buckhorn has pledged to set aside 2 million dollars for helping the homeless in 2014. The mayor also stated that he hoped to abandon the woeful homeless recovery project and focus instead on distributing the money to various NGOs, which aim to provide both food and shelter for the homeless people of Tampa.

This silver lining of course does not eradicate all problems for the poor souls in Tampa who are left homeless. In fact the pledge made by Mayor Buckhorn was made in September 2013 but only two months earlier  the city  passed an  ordinance  allowing police officers to arrest homeless people if they were seen sleeping in public. The ordinance further stated that ‘storing personal property in public’ was also worth criminalizing.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Luckily in every area of the world people will stand up for justice; this is the same in Tampa. When the key protests come from elementary school children, you begin to realise the severity of the situation. . These school children handed out flyers and paraded banners stating ‘homelessness is not a choice’ and ‘sleeping is not a crime’. I love the juxtaposition between those two statements. The first symbolises the harsh reality of the situation, telling the government that these people are already being punished enough by society.  Punishing  them further is just ludicrous; the second has a reinforcing impact. The children are, quite simply telling it how it is, which is why it is almost laughable to think that the homeless face being  imprisoned for something as basic as sleeping.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Just imagine for a moment you’ve decided to run 5km on a on a warm, sunny Sunday in the summer. You stop in the park, tired at the end of your run and decide to have a few moments of shuteye to recover. You then wake up in prison. Ridiculous but possible in Tampa!

There comes a time when human compassion is needed in tough decision making and I feel this should be the time. In mid-2012 a study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Tampa, of all mid-sized cities in the US, had the highest number of homeless individuals at 7419. Now picture all those people being put in prison. Some might enjoy prison – after all a warm bed, a roof and regular meals might be the answer to their dreams yet in the grand scheme of things it is not the answer. But what are the alternatives for the government?

It is all very well to criticise the laws but if there is not an obvious solution then what can be done? If we look at the facts regarding homeless shelters in Tampa, it makes the problem seem even bleaker. Although there are plenty of shelters available in Tampa across the various counties, the nightly stay averages between $10 and $42. This is too expensive for most homeless people. Think back to any time a homeless person has asked you for money when walking past. The vast majority of the time the only money in their cups will be loose change, a galaxy away from $42. I understand the need to charge those staying in the facilities in order to keep the shelters running, but it is likely that many of the previously mentioned 7419 people could not afford to access them. So where does the government turn if the NGOs can’t help.

Across the United States there are many initiatives in place to tackle homelessness. A lot of these efforts rely on the principles involved in rescue missions, which aim to get people off the street. For example, the rescue missions in Nashville have an 11 million dollar budget each year but ultimately this project tries to get people off the street only if they undertake rehabilitation programs lasting as long as a year. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee they will  stay  off the streets.

Similar models for lesser amounts of money, such as ‘Housing First’, remove people from the streets immediately, working on the belief that a person is best equipped to reintegrate themselves into society if they are housed first. This framework was first introduced in New York in the 1990s and studies revealed that most that completed ‘Housing First’ pathways programmes remained in housing  5 years after they were initially taken in. Therefore you can see how homelessness can begin to be eradicated and in areas with more homeless people than in Tampa, so it begs the question: why are these ideologies not being implemented here? To me it seems that investing in a project such as ‘Housing First’ would make a lot more sense, especially from an ethical point of view, than passing laws to put homeless people in jail. However what I see as right and wrong is not always logistically feasible.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

The local government of Tampa are not ignoring these measures and the fact that Mayor Buckhorn has pledged to invest is a sign of wanting to change the fortunes of the homeless. Really, the problem is that Tampa does not have the necessary resources in place to undertake a large scale operation to get their citizens off the street. If Tampa had the funds for an 11 million dollar a year rescue mission they would surely implement it. No area wants to be renowned as being top of the negative impact charts for rates such as homelessness especially with the state pride that occurs in the United States.

It could be suggested that the 2 million dollars pledged to fight the problems of homelessness in Tampa in 2014 should be invested in a project model such as ‘Housing First’ but it is unlikely to make a huge difference, as the budget required for that sort of operation is far grander than is available. As a result, the problem with homelessness is likely to rage on in Tampa, with more harm than good done given current policies. It remains to be seen whether the 2 million dollar investment will be utilised effectively as no full template for its application has yet evolved. With the very penal laws putting homeless people in jail simply for sleeping in public and thus criminalising them, many homeless will find it hard ever to turn their lives around, particularly when applying for jobs or housing in the future. Until the policymakers change the laws, and try instead to help those in need rather than punish them, the homeless people of Tampa are set to keep suffering until promises made are delivered within a cohesive and sustainable plan.

Endnotes and sources in order of use:

http://tbo.com/news/politics/social-services-director-fired-20130919/

http://tbo.com/news/tampa-council-wants-city-to-spend-more-on-homeless-20130919/

http://moorbey.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/11881/

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/nypd-boots-homeless-man-photo-145219581.html

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/07/22/2335261/tampa-criminalize-homelessness/

http://abtassociates.com/AbtAssociates/files/77/77fdb6fa-6e6b-4524-8b5a-8e68c68caca9.pdf

http://www.examiner.com/article/tampa-passes-new-ordinances-on-homeless-despite-protests

http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/solutions-for-homelessness.html

http://www.homelesshub.ca/Resource/Frame.aspx?url=http%3a%2f%2fps.psychiatryonline.org%2farticle.aspx%3farticleID%3d84342&id=25399&title=Pathways+to+Housing%3a+Supported+Housing+for+Street-Dwelling+Homeless+Individuals+with+Psychiatric+Disabilities&owner=48

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