Are FL homeless programs working or not? Top lawmaker asks about a ‘return on investment’

By  The Florida Phoenix, Dec 7, 2023.

The chair of a legislative committee that oversees spending on homeless programs in Florida says he wants to know if the “substantial amount of taxpayer dollars” the state devotes to those programs are providing a worthwhile return on investment.

Clay County Republican Sam Garrison is chair of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. At a meeting on Thursday, he asked Jess Tharpe, the assistant secretary for the Office of Prevention and Community Services with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), whether there are any accountability measures in place to see if the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

“We put a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars – real money – [to] supplement this program and my question is: Do we have plans in place to measure the effectiveness of those funds?” Garrison asked. “You are what you measure, and I personally think it’s worthwhile to know if we’re getting good ROI (return on investment).”

According to the presentation Tharpe made to the committee, more than $40 million has been allocated in state and federal dollars for the 27 local agencies spread out throughout the state that work with the homeless.

In response to Garrison’s question, she said that the Legislature has appropriated approximately $900,000 for the DCF undertake a modernization project regarding data that is being worked on with the homeless agencies across the state to provide more metrics on how those programs are working.

According to the most recent “Point in Time” count conducted in January, there are 30,839 homeless individuals in Florida. That’s an increase from 25,959 in 2022, and an overall 9% increase since 2019, according to the Florida’s Council on Homelessness annual report released in June of this year.  That report also shows that 4,668 are children under the age of 18, and 8,646 are individuals over the age of 55.

Homeless woman. Credit: YouTube.

Tharpe came before the subcommittee on Thursday to provide an update on homeless funding in Florida.  State and federal funding for the homeless goes to the 27 “Continuums of Care” (CoCs), regional agencies serving the homeless throughout Florida. Tharpe said those CoCs provided 128,000 people last year with services like shelter, street outreach, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and housing case management.

She described the “Point in Time” count as a day (usually in January) where for 24 hours teams made up of housing specialists, case managers and volunteers canvass the community to try to identify and count every single individual who is experiencing homelessness.

St. Lucie County Republican Dana Trabulsky questioned the accuracy of the homeless count in her area. She said that the CoC in her region – the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council – reported on its website that there is a total of 925 people – 736 adults and 189 children – who were counted as homeless.

But she said that in St. Lucie County alone her school superintendent says that they’ve counted 2,000 children and students are who are homeless.

“There’s a huge disparity there,” she said.

Tharpe responded that she would follow up to try to reconcile those numbers.

GOP Rep. Lauren Melo, who represents Hendry and part of Collier County, asked Tharpe if it was possible when providing services to the homeless to make it “mandatory” for them to go into CareerSource and other agencies “to figure out how to get them upskilled and actually get them independent and keep them off the streets, once they get stabilized?” (CareerSource is a job placement center).

Tharpe said that was a legal question that she wasn’t prepared to answer, but she did add that “with a lot of permanent housing programs there are wrap-around services that are included in that, and they do have requirements for some of those programs.”

Image Credits: Johnny Milano for The New York Times