Advocates for homeless coalitions in the state are reporting that nearly $2.4 million meant to help them bring in federal grants has been removed from the state’s $70 billion budget set to be voted on this Friday. But another item in the budget, for homeless housing assistance, may be able to help homeless coalitions throughout the state.

The state’s budget currently allocates $3 million in “homeless housing assistance grants”– $2 million of which is to be handed out to local homeless coalitions. According to language in the budget, the $2 million “is provided to the United Way of Brevard County for distribution to homeless coalitions in the state with a maximum of $66,667 per coalition.”

The other $1 million would go to the National Veterans Support Group, for assistance to the homeless. Last year, the National Veterans Support Group was allocated $12 million, until Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the funding.

The line-item that have allowed local coalitions to fund programs for the homeless was left out of the final budget. The budget also left out an additional $345,729 for the coalitions’ administrative costs.

Erin Gillespie, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Children and Families, says that even though the governor’s budget proposal followed through on the department’s recommendation for these programs, the current budget conference leaves out about $2.4 million the department was seeking.

More specifically, the budget leaves out $2,031,354 in “challenge grants” for local coalitions.

Gillespie says that the absence of the challenge grants would mean less money for direct services, like soup kitchens.

As I reported last month, Tom Pierce, the executive director of the Office on Homelessness at the Department of Children and Families, said that local homeless coalitions rely on that money to help them plan and apply for federal grants. He warned that eliminating challenge grants for local homeless coalitions could prove a “critical” blow to the organizations.

Pierce explained that federal programs, which sometimes require local matching, make up a significant chunk of the funding for services in homeless coalitions throughout the state. However, state money is important for the planning and “groundwork” that local coalitions do.

“The [challenge grants] are critical to getting the money here,” Pierce said, explaining that state funding “fills in the gaps” of federal grants. According to Pierce, because the grants are “flexible money,” they allow the coalitions to address important needs for which federal grants are not allocated.

Fly Curva, a lobbyist for the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, says she was “heartbroken and disappointed” when she learned the line item for challenge grants was left out. She says that those funds help coalitions conduct a census, allowing them to access their needs. It also helps the coalitions gather important data when applying for federal money.

Curva says the coalition grants also help coalitions “draw down federal funds.”

As of now, Curva is unsure whether the $2 million in the budget that is supposed to go to coalitions “could be used for challenge grant activity” and that she will fight to ensure Scott does not veto that line-item.

Florida is currently facing a homelessness epidemic that has garnered national attention. Earlier this year it was reported that “the number of homeless students in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties has ballooned 79 percent since January 2009.”

Last November, 60 Minutes took a hard look at a county in Florida that reported 1,100 homeless students in its K-12 schools. The program also reported that “of all the families without shelter in America, one third are in Florida.” The episode prompted the creation of a homelessness fundraising bill, which was sponsored in the House by state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, and was part of a bipartisan effort “to raise awareness and funding to help combat homelessness.” The bill will provide a way for Floridians to donate a dollar for programs to help the homeless when registering vehicles and renewing their driver’s licenses, and has already passed in the Florida House.

Pierce said that even though the bill is a strong idea, the revenue from that measure cannot replace the $2.3 million that the state has given to local coalitions in the past, as most other programs receiving voluntary donations from driver’s licenses typically raise between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. Lawmakers have claimed the bill would bring in up to $1.5 million a year.

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