Old Manatee County jail could become home of program to help homeless veterans

Manatee County leaders are considering a plan that would help homeless military veterans while breathing life into an old jail facility that has been vacant for more than a decade.

At a county commission meeting last month, commissioners discussed how to use funds from the federal American Rescue Plan, which is designed to help communities recover from COVID-19. One plan that appeared to unanimously popular would devote at least $13 million to renovate the 80,000 square foot jail building into a center for homeless veterans, and another $2 million to design the project.

"This is by far the largest project focusing on homeless veterans in the United States," County Administrator Scott Hopes told commissioners during the January 4 meeting.

The old jail facility, which is connected to the Manatee County Judicial Center in Bradenton, hasn't been used for about 15 years.

Commissioner Misty Servia has two sons in the military and has taken a personal interest in the project.

"There is no veteran that deserves to be without basic housing," Servia told FOX 13 Monday. "I know personally how hard they serve our country because we talk to them every single week, we hear about what they're doing. Multiply that by the thousands and tens of thousands of people locally that have served our country and now come back to a community where they can't find housing."

According to the 2021 homeless census, there were more than 500 homeless people in the Manatee-Sarasota region, including at least 51 veterans.

Agencies that help the homeless, including Turning Points in Bradenton, said the jail renovation project would meet a critical need.

"Every person who's experiencing homelessness has their own story, has their own challenges," said Kathleen Cramer, Turning Points' Executive Director. "The idea is to bring the social services to the veterans that are then in this transitional housing, which really is a best-in-class type of model."

There are, however, still several unknowns, including whether the plan would be allowed under the government's guidelines for COVID-19 relief funding.

County leaders also aren't sure if they're budgeting enough money.

"You're not building that thing out for 13 million dollars. Not in a heartbeat," said Commissioner George Kruse during the January meeting.

Hopes, however, told commissioners he's confident the funding will be there even if the project ends up exceeding $13 million, saying, "we believe that we will have numerous of funds from a number of entities."

The county will receive a total of $78 million from the American Rescue Plan. Community leaders would still have to decide what services would be offered at a new homeless shelter for veterans.