Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction

CBCR Site Feature: Tampa

Tampa, Florida
Target Neighborhood:  Central Park/Ybor
CBCR Funding Year:  2013 Planning & Enhancement


Reducing Crime with a Focus on Homelessness

Officer Randi Whitney of the Tampa Police Department (TPD) recently spent an entire morning with a one-legged gentleman in a wheelchair who’d been living on the streets for months. She couldn’t fit his chair into her squad car, so she got him a taxi and helped him check into a drop-in center run by local nonprofit Gracepoint Wellness, where he could take a shower and get a cup of coffee. Then Whitney secured a shelter bed for the man. She learned he’d grown unhappy in the nursing home where he lived, and set out on his own. “I need to spend more time with him to figure out what precipitated him leaving,” Whitney says. “Obviously I need to delve into that.”

Whitney’s painstaking approach to the man is part of Tampa’s multi-agency strategy to help the people experiencing homelessness who frequent this balmy Gulf Coast city, and at the same time curb the nuisance crimes—trespassing, aggressive panhandling, public urination and intoxication—that often go hand in hand with life on the streets and that affect the daily experience of neighborhood residents and business owners.

In 2013 the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance bolstered this creative approach by awarding Tampa a nearly $600,000 Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction (CBCR) grant. Under the federal program local researchers join with community members and other criminal justice system partners to analyze what’s driving crime in a particular neighborhood, then develop and implement a strategic plan to address those identified problems.

An evidence- and place-based approach

Tampa’s CBCR program focuses on a 6.2-square-mile area just north of downtown that encompasses two historic neighborhoods central to the city’s identity—Ybor City, a community established by Cuban and Spanish cigar makers in the nineteenth century, and Central Park, which thrived in the early twentieth century as an African-American residential, business, and entertainment district, a onetime home to Ray Charles and the birthplace of “the Twist.”

This swath of urban landscape suffered setbacks common to many cities in the last half of the twentieth century—including highway construction and urban-renewal demolitions, racial unrest and sustained disinvestment. But in the last decade the city and Tampa Housing Authority (the CBCR fiscal agent) have replaced a dilapidated public housing complex, Central Park Village, with more than a thousand units of mixed-income housing, office space, streetscaping, and amenities like a grocery store, renovated park, and new urban farm. Ybor City is again a lively cultural hub and center of nightlife—“where everyone goes to socialize, kind of like Bourbon Street for New Orleans,” says Jack Geller, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Mathematics and Education at the University of Tampa, a research partner for the local CBCR grant.

People experiencing homelessness hang out in the area, too. Initial research found that while serious crimes were way down there, minor crimes such as public drunkenness, associated with the homeless population continued to trouble residents and perhaps stymie revitalization. In a survey taken in the area in 2014, 39 percent of respondents cited loitering as a “major problem crime” and 40 percent labeled panhandling as a major problem.

Indeed, the person who has been arrested more often than any other individual in Tampa’s Hillsborough County (176 times) is one individual who kept getting picked up for petty offenses like trespassing and public drunkenness. In this cycle of arrest and re-arrest, there weren’t any winners.

A better way to fight crime and homelessness

Armed with this information, the THA and its partner agencies used CBCR resources to strengthen critical nodes in their local system of homeless outreach and case management. The grant has supported the new positions of TPD homeless liaison officer Whitney and THA homeless case manager Joanna Lopez-Walker, for example.

The strategy, in a nutshell, is to attack the root cause of nuisance crimes in the Tampa CBCR target area—homelessness—by spending the time it takes to sort out the complex problems of people experiencing homelessness and by collaborating across agencies to make that process as effective and efficient as possible. It includes three basic elements.

Coordinated intake and assessment. Organized by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI), local entities from the police department to the Salvation Army to drug-treatment organizations use a single tool to assess the vulnerability and needs of the homeless population they come in contact with and place them on a priority list for housing assistance and other services. It’s a kind of triage that ensures people with the most urgent needs get access to a limited supply of local resources. Under the CBCR grant TPD, THA, and other partners have made more than 2,000 referrals to this list.

Coordinated outreach. Officer Whitney chairs THHI’s outreach committee, and makes going out to meet the homeless and offer help a big part of her job. The second Tuesday of each month she and a handful of social-service partners visit known encampments or locations where activity has raised issues or complaints. She also patrols on her own, gently coaxing homeless individuals into conversation and offering meal packs, toiletries, and other little comforts. She’ll take people to the social security office to get them signed up for benefits and help them apply for food stamps. Four times a year she helps coordinate a major event in a public space that brings together dozens of service providers and volunteers offering everything from haircuts to free phones.

Many of these individuals, says Whitney, struggle with mental illness or addiction, and many have lost ties to family and friends. “I build connections,” she says. “Sometimes it takes five, six, seven contacts—months of building a relationship—before they trust you enough in order to get them off the street. That’s our ultimate goal.”

Judicial diversion for homeless offenders. This effort began in 2013 as a special docket in which violators of municipal code “quality of life” laws would come before a judge on a single day each month. By 2014 it became known as “homeless court,” with service providers showing up to make the county courtroom a new coordinated service-entry point and the judge waiving convictions (along with fines or jail time) for homeless individuals willing to work with a case manager toward getting help.

As part of her personalized homeless case management, the housing authority’s Lopez-Walker attends this court session every month. “Instead of being prosecuted, individuals are being offered an alternative to the revolving cycle in the judicial system that would sometimes go on for many years,” she says.

Taking stock of progress

As the grant period came to a close at the end of 2017, Geller and his colleagues assembled an array of statistics to evaluate its impact. Many factors contributed with overall efforts to develop the target area and bring the city’s homeless the many-faceted assistance they need.  When taken together the statistics paint an encouraging picture. For example, in the CBCR target area, minor “part II” crimes declined by 43.5 percent during the grant period. In a follow-up survey in the target area, 45 percent of respondents said they felt safer than three years ago, and only 8.2 percent said they felt less safe.

Meanwhile, the TPD has decided that Officer Whitney’s patient, labor-intensive attention to the area’s homeless is valuable enough to make her position permanent, bringing the department’s complement of full-time homeless liaison officers to two. It’s not exactly a new job for Whitney; she’s spent more than twenty years in law enforcement, working undercover, in narcotics, and as a community resource officer, among other roles.

But it is a fresh calling. “I’ve had all these different experiences,” Whitney says, “and this is by far my favorite. I feel like it’s a privilege.”

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is the national technical assistance provider for CBCR, working in cooperation with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. This paper was supported by Grant No. 2012-AJ-BX-K046 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance to LISC. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.