Future of homelessness office at a crossroads

Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 4:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 4:11 p.m.

Alachua County and the city of Gainesville soon must determine the fate of the Office on Homelessness, which, after Sept. 30, no longer will be managed by the Alachua County Housing Authority or funded by the county.

The housing authority plans to terminate its interlocal agreement with the city and county governments at the end of September, which means it no longer will be responsible for managing the Office on Homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review of the housing authority's operations determined the agency had been inappropriately using public housing or other HUD funding for Office on Homelessness business, according to a letter to the city from housing authority Executive Director Herbert Hernandez.

Hernandez told The Sun that HUD pointed out the housing authority shouldn't be supporting the Office on Homelessness because that isn't a legitimate use of the federal money it receives. That meant it had no way to continue managing the office, which is currently housed in the housing authority's offices.

Theresa Lowe, executive director of the Office on Homelessness, said the office will continue working closely with the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry until the county and city determine its future.

"For now, we're probably just going to kind of punt," she said.

The services for the homeless won't go away, and Lowe said she is confident the coalition will be able to pick up any slack it needs to in the interim.

Lowe said she is the only employee who works for the Office on Homelessness. If the office is eliminated, she said she plans to return to her former position as executive director of the coalition.

She recently resigned from that role because of a potential conflict of interest that arose when the coalition expressed interest in operating the city's long-planned one-stop homeless center. The city would like to convert the closed Gainesville Correctional Institution on NE 39th Avenue into the Gainesville Community Innovation, or GCI, one-stop homeless center.

The potential conflict was because of her dual role as executive director of both the coalition and the Office on Homelessness.

The Office on Homelessness has been run through an interlocal agreement between the housing authority, the city and the county since 2006, according to a recent interoffice city memo.

The current interlocal agreement was meant to run from Oct. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30, 2014. The housing authority met the termination requirement that it provide 30 days of written notice.

Under the interlocal agreement, the city and county each budgeted $36,000 annually to cover the office's operational expenses. However, County Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton said the county cut the $36,000 in funding for the office from its tentative budget for fiscal year 2014, which the County Commission was expected to finalize on Tuesday.

Minnie Rolark, acting director of the county's Community Support Services department, said her staff recommended eliminating funding for the homelessness office for the upcoming fiscal year because of financial constraints.

The county still has about $150,000 set aside to help fund the future operational costs for the city's homeless center.

City spokesman Bob Woods said the city still has budgeted its share of the office's funding for fiscal year 2014 and can keep it running for at least the first part of 2014.

Unless the City Commission directs staff otherwise, Woods said he expects the city will continue to support the office until it comes up with a long-term plan.

"Right now, the city and county staffs are currently discussing the future of the operations of the Office on Homelessness and alternative options that will enable us to move forward with transitioning services as part of the GCI initiative," he said.

Morgan Watkins is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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