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Gift-giving: Homeless Families Support County Government

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“We get back what we give,” is a saying that usually creates good Karma. In Tampa and Hillsborough County, the saying changes to “We claw back what we give, and too bad if the suckers become homeless again.”

Hillsborough is one of 10 counties in the Sunshine State that makes sure desperate homeless families and individuals keep county government afloat. With no real options, and with a promise to end their homelessness, clients sign away pending disability payments, not realizing that the funds the county’s Homeless Recovery program uses to shelter them will be clawed back, often creating another round of homelessness in the process.

What makes this even more egregious is that the housing used by the county is typically substandard, “squalid slums” according to the Tampa Bay Times editorial decrying this practice.

This paper admirably continues to shine a light on treatment of homeless persons, a welcome and rare practice in the world of journalism.

They told the story of a family whose 4-year-old deaf son, Sammie, qualified for disability payments. The back check of $2700 would swoop them out of the fetid, infested, leaky trailer that wouldn’t pass inspection as an animal shed, housing arranged by the “benevolent” county homeless recovery office. But before the family packed their bags, the county snatched $2000 from them, virtually condemning them to long-term homelessness.

Yes, the Social Security Administration allows government agencies to recover funds spent on individuals and families, interim assistance repayments, but most agencies pass those duties on to nonprofits that are not allowed to claw back the funds. In the past 5 years, Hillsborough County has reaped a tidy sum, $1.3 mil, from homeless clients. To make matters worse, “Instead of using the money it recouped from Homeless Recovery clients to help more poor people, the county pumped it back into its general-purpose coffers,” according to the story.

"Tampa is abusing it,” decried an attorney I heard from on this topic of clawbacks.

If Hillsborough County executive Mike Merrill is serious about his disgust with this practice, he will have to undo the damage done in the county’s name. That means humanely rehousing those placed in substandard housing under the guise of homeless recovery. And restoring the funds ripped from them by this abusive practice.

He could take me up on my offer to conduct a sensitivity training for county employees and executives to help them understand homeless families. I’d use my HEAR US Inc.-created documentaries to humanize the population that has obviously is held in disdain by too many government officials.

May I also suggest that those responsible for placing families and individuals in such vile housing, and the property owners, should be forced to spend their holidays living in the squalor. It might interfere with their holiday spirit, but since they’ve ruined mine, it’s a fair trade-off.  Remember, “You get back what you give.”