Before we address this issue, one thing is clear. It is appalling that we don’t have a homeless department. Not only is it appalling, it is also embarrassing. Now, the argument for why this hasn’t been implemented in the past has been that we don’t have the money to allocate to help solve the homelessness problem. But that’s because it’s been looked at through the same old lens of politics and bureaucracy. This means that the wrong questions were being asked, thus giving us the wrong results.
According to the latest data from Tampa Homeless Liaison Officer, Daniel McDonald, the average homeless person costs the city taxpayers $40,000 each, per year. And the cost of providing them with housing and counseling services would only be $12,000 each, per year. This means that we don’t have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the fiscally intelligent thing; doing the right thing is the fiscally intelligent thing.
A typical response to the homeless crisis is something to the effect of: “If they want to eat, they can go get a job!” “If they want a place to stay, they can go get a job!” And you know what? It’s accurate, but only for a minority of the homeless population.
There are typically 3 types of homeless.
1. The transient.
These are the ones who are just going through a rough patch in their life and are committed to getting their lives back in order. They are trying to get a job but it’s not as easy to get employed when you don’t have an address to fill out on the application form, or an email to check and see if you’ve been offered the job. Or a mobile phone to receive a phone call stating that they want you back for a follow-up interview. Or a place to take a shower and wash your clothes so you can make a fine impression on the people interviewing you. “Just get a job” is great advice assuming they have all the elements necessary to get that job. Access to technology, clean clothes, a clean shave, and enough self-esteem to step up and say: “There’s nobody more qualified than myself”.
2. The mentally ill or physically disabled.
These people, in their current state, can’t get a job because they currently lack the social skills and/or capacity to ever hold down a standard 9 – 5 job. Living on the streets is a fast paced downward spiral and expecting them to suck it up and get a job, is not only ineffective, it’s heartless.
3. The Homeless by Choice.
While it could be argued that no one would ever “choose” a life of homelessness, there is a minority of homeless who have, regardless of how they became homeless, choosing to remain homeless. This person has discovered that, thanks to kind-hearted people, they can get fed and clothed (and sometimes even sheltered) without having to work. These are the ones who are manipulating the minds of compassionate people and abusing the system.
Now here’s the tricky part: Unless you are a highly trained, experienced clinician who can distinguish between all three, you will have a very hard time knowing one from the other. So telling the homeless to just “suck it up and find a job” isn’t as clear cut as it may seem.
This is why we need a comprehensive plan to solve the majority of homelessness. Topher has proposed using a 4 stage process:
Stage One: Bolster the Housing First Project
This project has proven to be successful in other cities like Orlando, but it hasn’t yet received the traction it needs in Tampa. Let’s end that. It works off two basic principles:
It’s cheaper for taxpayers to provide homeless people with housing than to leave them on the streets. As discussed earlier, the savings based on current data would be $28,000 per person.
When you give a human a place to rest their head at night without the fear of being mugged, raped, or killed, they can start to redirect their mental energy to other areas of their lives, and seek to improve them.
This solution is going to require help from private entities, the county government and even state and federal governments. By creating a department in the city to address this issue, we can ensure that we work collectively to assist the county with the Housing First program.
Stage Two: Ride to Work
We will invest in Tampa’s workforce by allocating some funds from our city’s budget to lease some vans, and working with local non-profits to staff them up. We will then head out to offer those in need, a real opportunity to integrate back into society. This means every day they have an opportunity to work. This is far better than just giving them money because now we are recognizing their worth, and they no longer define themselves by the park bench they may sleep on.
At the end of each day, they can receive a cash payment for their work which is focused around cleaning up the city and our neighborhood blight. We have proof of concept because it has been done in the other cities before with great success. And we can implement it in our city and give these people a chance to pursue happiness.
A great example of this would be a young homeless man named Joe. When Topher met him, he was able to see Joe’s worth far more than Joe could. Joe didn’t need pocket change, he needed meaningful change. By engaging in conversation, informing him about the resources he had available, and treating him with respect and dignity, Topher was able to help Joe see what he saw in Joe. By offering him work at his own small business and making a social media post to his own personal network, Topher found additional jobs that kept Joe gainfully employed for nearly 2 weeks. Now here’s where it gets interesting: Joe was making LESS money than he did panhandling on the street. But even though he was earning less, he was feeling better about his identity. He has now found an apartment, opened up a bank account, and is slowly making progress to getting his life back to normalcy. And, if you ever order a sandwich from Jimmy Johns downtown, there’s a good chance Joe will be the one delivering your sandwich. If this is the kind of impact that can happen in the life of ONE individual, imagine how much impact the 16,000 people in Tampa living on the streets would benefit with a Mayor who embodies this attention to humanity.
Stage Three: Launch the Homeless Not Helpless Campaign
This will be an educational program for the compassionate citizens of Tampa who, despite their best intentions and kind acts of love, aren’t solving the problem, but in some cases, can actually be reinforcing the problem. Properly directed generosity towards local charities and issue-based organizations can make a big difference in the lives of those most affected, but leftovers from a restaurant, pocket change, and bags of clothes don’t fix the problem, they just prolong their suffering. This campaign recognizes that homeless issues are issues for everyone.
Stage Four: Community Housing & Support.
This bookends the Housing First initiative and it focuses on creating shelters for the homeless where they aren’t simply given a bed at night and then kicked out during the day as some services currently require. Instead, we create a place of community, rehabilitation, and learning of long gone life skills. It will be a place where they can stay during the day and contribute to society. Tiny homes, studio apartments, or even converted jails where the bars come off and doors go up – nothing should be off the table when trying to innovate and build places that can provide shelter, and complement it with community gardens, kitchens, and educational programs so they can get their lives back on track.
We could save our taxpayers much more money if we provided housing for the homeless. It would increase the enjoyability factor in our city because people would want to spend more time in the parks, reading on our park benches, instead of having these beautiful venues being completely overrun with homeless people trying to find their place in the world.
We need to encourage and empower the ones who want to get better to do just that. Help the ones who don’t know better, and provide them with the necessary medication so that their brains can function properly; and let the lifetimers realize this city is not friendly to their kind of lifestyle that preys on the hearts of good people. This starts by making it harder for the homeless to be homeless, and finishes with making it easier for the homeless to be homed.
As citizens of our city, we need to stop feeding the monster, and gently nudge all 3 types of homeless people to seek help. This starts by not feeding them, not giving them money, and not giving them clothes. It continues by us providing food, finances, and used clothing to the good charities of Tampa Bay. And it finishes by us saving millions of dollars in wasted tax dollars, every year, in hospital beds and jail cells, by instead providing them with affordable, clean housing and making our city a safer and more enjoyable place to live, work, and play.