City, county commissioners see homelessness first-hand, approve funding

County Commissioner Rick Minor (left), Mayor John Dailey (center) and City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow listen to speakers during the public comment segment of last week’s workshop on homelessness.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Several cities around the country are responding to homelessness by building tent communities.
UNsplash photo

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer 

County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings and City Commissioner Curtis Richardson have had a better view of homelessness than most people do.

During a joint workshop, Cummings told her peers homeless people sometimes seek shelter outside of her law office in Frenchtown. 

Richardson has been seeing homelessness on the porch of a neighbor’s home. The neighbor had to leave town for medical reasons. Meanwhile, a relative of the neighbor took up residence on her porch.

“We knew they needed some place to be, but we knew it didn’t need to be on the porch of that house,” Richardson said.

During the meeting last Tuesday in City Hall, commissioners from both branches of government voted to give $6.2 million to the Big Bend Continuum of Care to help reduce the issue of homelessness in the area. BBCoC is the lead agency on homelessness, securing funding for seven resource agencies.

The commissioners approved the funding after a lengthy presentation on homelessness. The presentation was given by Abena Ojetayo, the city’s Director of Housing & Community Resilience, and Shington Lamy, director of the county’s office of Human Service and Community Partnerships.

Amanda Wander, Executive director of the Big Bend Continuum of Care, also participated in the presentation.

“We are hoping that this really paints a picture of how dire the situation is,” Wander said. “We are thankful that they’ve dedicated these funds.”

According to the report, Tallahassee has seen a 56 percent decrease in homelessness among young people since 2015, although overall the city has a 29 percent increase in homelessness. One of the most surprising statistics is the number of homeless veterans, a population that has show a 13 percent increase.

In addition to the Kearney Center, some veterans have managed to find transitional housing at a location off Lake Bradford for those who served in the military. Less than a mile away, a veterans village also provides long-term housing.

By approving the $6.2 million, which will come from the American Rescue Plan Act, commissioners also signed off on creating a new category for homeless services, the Community Human Service Partnership, which is the arm through which the city and county channel funding for human services programs.

The approved funding also includes $3,075,000, which will be released through the CHSP in 2023 and 2024.

City Commissioner Jack Porter said this funding should be released much sooner because of the urgency she sees in ending or reducing homelessness. After Porter explained her position, City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox said she couldn’t go against the timeline required by CHSP guidelines.

“What I wanted to see was emergency funding going into the community as soon as possible,” said Porter, who cast the only vote against approving the funding. “Right now, with the vote that was taken, communities in need are going to be waiting at least 15 months to get millions of dollars that we know they need right now. I could not in good conscience support something that would delay that assistance.”

However, Williams-Cox said BBCoC has allocated funding that could fill the void until the ARPA money is released.

“I was not interested in jumping into the CHSP process and changing it and pulling slices out,” said Williams-Cox. “Then, what’s to prevent other groups from saying we need a special category to slice out for mental health.”

The commissioners also heard plenty of recommendations from speakers during the public comment segment. Some expressed concern about mental illness among the homeless. There also was a suggestion that consideration be given  to creating a tent village, as is being done in cities like San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Seattle.

Former county commissioner Tony Grippa, who serves on the Kearney Center’s board of directors, lauded the report. He responded to a suggestion that homeless people have been coming to the area because of the resources.

“I don’t think people come here to seek homeless services,” Grippa said. “I think there is an innovative way to give somebody basic food, shelter and a hand up.”