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The Other Tampa

Posted: 08/17/2012 10:00 am

Later this month, Tampa will host the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney will accept his party's nomination and fifteen thousand credentialed media will swarm the city.

In this week's issue of Huffington, Saki Knafo spotlights a Tampa most of the media will not see during their stay. Hillsborough County, which surrounds Tampa, has 60 homeless people for every 10,000 residents -- more homeless per capita than any other American city or county. As a result, Tampa has become a kind of civic laboratory, with citizens, police, and government grappling with all the problems that accompany homelessness.

Saki Knafo introduces us to several of Tampa's homeless, as well as those who seek innovative solutions to their predicament. Among the latter is Steve Donaldson, a Hillsborough County Sherriff's Department deputy with a lifelong passion for problem solving (it began with a childhood fascination with Donald Trump and evolved into a respect for unconventional thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell). In his first decade with the department, Donaldson was repulsed by what he encountered out on the beat: the drug addicts and derelicts who seemed beyond help. But then, something changed in the way he saw Tampa's homeless, and in the way he went about his daily work. Since then, as Knafo puts it, Donaldson has been "on a mission to convince police and ordinary civilians alike that the answer to the homeless problem lies not in arrests and jail but in something far more subtle, the relationship between a single homeless person and a cop."

Since 2010, Donaldson has helped get more than 100 people off the streets -- including Albert Swiger, who with Donaldson's help traded a life of crime, and more than 200 arrests, for home ownership, a job and a girlfriend. Donaldson has done this by looking to both the public and private sectors. Many homeless people are unaware that they qualify for benefits, and part of Donaldson's relationship with his "clients," as he calls them, is making sure they understand what they're entitled to. He's also tapped his contacts in real estate, convincing property owners to let his clients work on abandoned homes in exchange for staying in them.

As the Republican convention approaches and all eyes turn to Tampa, Saki Knafo puts flesh and blood on the homelessness crisis, and gets an answer from Donaldson about what changed his perception of the homeless: it was the realization that he had "more in common with them than I would like to think."

This story appears in our new weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available in the iTunes App store.

 
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