City Homelessness Efforts Evolve in Second Year

In its first year, the city’s rapid re-housing program found permanent housing for 114 Lakelanders who if not already homeless were on the verge of eviction, Mayor Bill Mutz said.

Now the city needs to sign off on paperwork to provide the promised $103,000 so the program administrator, Tri-County Human Services, qualifies for additional grant funding to continue the program for another year.

The city funds are used to pay pay first- and last-months’ rent and associated deposits and up to $5,000 in office expenses. Tri-County combines funding from other sources to pay case manager salaries.

“These were 114 different individuals who otherwise would have been homeless,” Mutz said. “We look for episodic homeless, people who have had something happen that would send them onto to the streets.

That could be any unexpected expense that kept them from being able to make a rent payment or several payments, such as death of a family member and subsequent loss of income, domestic violence, health issue, transportation issue causing loss of a job, work hours cut, or other event.

UPDATE: City commissioners voted unanimously Monday afternoon to approve the expenditure. Commissioners Bill Read and Scott Franklin initially said they wanted more information on success of the city’s homeless initiative before approving new funding. But Franklin said he was satisfied after Mutz told him that one of the case managers the city paid for last year is being picked up by Lighthouse Ministries and that by next September, costs for the homeless initiative should shift to nonprofit organizations.

Solimar Colon-Ortiz, Tri-County’s community program coordinator, said that while the non-profit Tri-County provides services throughout Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties on mental health, addiction, housing and other arenas, the Lakeland program focuses on rapid re-housing.

It is difficult to find housing that is affordable, Colon-Ortiz said.

“We have case managers who scout the area for low-income housing, build networks with landlords, are in contact with Talbot House and the Homeless Coalition of Polk County and other agencies and programs.”

The case managers also provide supportive services, including helping clients with budgeting and with enrolling those who nee it in other programs to access health care, employment services and treatment.

“If the case managers need assistance other case managers for other programs work with them; we work as a team to get housing” and to keep people in housing, she said.

While the city funds are focused on helping people facing episodic housing issues, the case managers, whose salaries are paid by other grants, can also help others who have long-term homelessness issues, which often are related to mental health or addiction, Colon-Ortiz said.

The grant agreement from this year indicates there were two case managers dedicated to working in the city’s rapid re-housing program. A couple of months ago, Lighthouse Ministries picked up funding the salary for one of those case managers in a re-housing program that is relying on its financial resources to get people established in permanent housing.

Together the programs have re-housed 114 individuals, Mutz said.

Colon-Ortiz said 89 of those were re-housed through Tri-County. The goal is to continue re-housing at a similar rate in the coming year using one Tri-County case manager.

“We are very fortunate to have had two homeless coordinators for the past year, Luke Simmons and Ryan Rose,” Mutz said. “A couple of months ago, one of the two case managers, Luke Simmons, became the Lighthouse Ministries coordinator in the same role.”

Mutz said that because of the city’s involvement “we demonstrated that we can help get people out of homelessness if we have some very targeted and skilled case managers working with them. We worked through all the processes. And, we are making sure we are doing it in a responsible way.”

Mutz said the city working as a catalyst to get a program started is successful when a private sector, charitable organization steps in and picks it up.

“We are appreciative of Lighthouse that they can pick up on this,” Mutz said.

Steve Turbeville, Lighthouse Ministries president and chief executive officer, said that Lighthouse Ministries collaborates with other agencies on its projects.

“We are funding the salary and the expenses to pretty much do the same thing” as the city/Tri-County program, but without tapping into government funding, Turbeville said..

Lighthouse relies on charitable donations from individuals, businesses, private foundations, churches and on the proceeds from its thrift stores, Turbeville said.

“We are always collaborating with everyone,” Turbeville said.

“There is a need for overlap to get people independent. And while some people ask if we are are duplicating, the answer is there needs to be overlap to have a smooth transitions for individuals and families.”

Mutz said he hopes the city can eventually get out of funding the rapid-rehousing initiative.

But the infusion of city funds is needed now, Colon-Ortiz said.

“We have just enough to get us through the end of the year” she said, and the city’s new funds are expected to start arriving Jan. 1 so that rent deposits can be made to move people into housing.

“We get calls every day from people in need,” she said.

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