Health care, shared housing focus of new plan to reduce homelessness

It was an ambitious plan with an ambitious name: “The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Palm Beach County, Florida.”

The plan, adopted by the County Commission in 2008, expired in 2018 with many homeless still on the streets.

On Tuesday, the commission vowed to try again, implementing a new strategy, called “Leading The Way Home,” which will focus on health care, shared housing, case management from social workers and help from religious institutions and philanthropists to solve the perennial problem. The commission will use money from a one-cent sales tax as well as grant money to continue the fight.

Commissioners said they were deeply affected by the story of Bryce Gowdy, a Deerfield Beach High football star who authorities said died by suicide in the path of a freight train last month, devastated by his family’s struggles with homelessness and mental illness.

“He had so much potential,” Commissioner Mack Bernard said. “It’s a life that was lost because of the struggles some of our kids are facing.”

About 1,400 people in Palm Beach County were identified as homeless in a count one year ago, up almost 100 from the previous year but down from 1,607 in 2017. The current count reflects a 24 percent drop in family homelessness and a 9 percent decrease in homeless veterans.

“We do end homelessness every single day,” said James Green, the county’s community services director, pointing to the 280 people and 240 families that are provided housing through a program that subsidizes rent in a typical year.

“‘Breaking the cycle of homelessness’ might be a better way to put it,” he said. The county seeks to discourage homelessness in future generations by connecting residents with jobs, case workers, education, food and other supports that can foster independence, he said.

The statistics remain grim. The number of homeless children in Palm Beach County, as measured by the School District, grew from 3,347 in 2016 to 4,415 in 2018.

There’s an endless stream of homeless, attracted in part by Florida winter temperatures, arriving from 32 states in a typical year, said Wendy Tippett, the county’s director of human services. They don’t qualify for help from Palm Beach County if they don’t live here and are offered a bus ticket back home, she said.

The Ten-Year Plan envisioned new shelters and housing for the homeless, but they mostly remain unbuilt. The plan called for the creation of at least three strategically placed homeless resource centers. Only one — the 60-bed Lewis Center — was built in West Palm Beach. Additional resource centers in western and southern Palm Beach County didn’t materialize.

1-cent sales tax approved by Palm Beach County voters in 2016, designed to fix aging infrastructure, includes $31 million to address homelessness. Nearly $8 million has been designated to open another homeless resource center in the Lake Worth area. The rest will be used to renovate rundown housing and motels to provide shelter to homeless and low-income residents.

The plan approved on Tuesday does not have an ending date, Green said.


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