Even with funds, many in Pinellas remain homeless due to lack of affordable housing

The county's rapid rehousing program is working, but the waiting is the hardest part.

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click to enlarge Even with funds, many in Pinellas remain homeless due to lack of affordable housing
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Did you know that 47 percent of Pinellas county residents are one paycheck away from becoming homeless? I’m one of them; everyone in my family probably is, too. Chances are someone near you is also in the same financial boat. Speaking of paychecks, a few weeks ago I was hired to transcribe meeting notes for the Central Arts Council. The group meets monthly to discuss issues pertaining to St. Pete’s Central Avenue corridor. 

It just so happens that their most recent meeting focused on the topic of homelessness in the city. The police department gave a presentation on ways it’s working with the city to alleviate the homeless issue for downtown residents and businesses. Those tactics include cutting up vegetation along Booker Creek, limiting shade along Central Avenue thoroughfares, and even strategically repositioning public garbage cans. The city moved the bus station down to 31st St. and Central Ave., ostensibly with the hoped-for side effect of lessening the concentration of downtown’s homeless. It’s definitely changed where people congregate, for better and for worse. The issue remains constant, though.

Homelessness is obviously an economic concern for the now-booming city. For the people on the street, there are economic concerns about the city’s future, too. St. Petersburg City Councilperson Amy Foster and Susan Finlaw-Dusseault, the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board director of continuum of care services, presented to the room of local business owners and city leaders. 

“The reality is homeless people have to take up space,” Foster said.

The classification of “homeless people” isn’t limited to stereotypes of St. Pete street folk: dewy, leathery skin, old T-shirt, faint smell of malt liquor and urine, a request for an oddly specific amount of change for the bus, “brother.” No disrespect to that guy, but we’re also talking about families, veterans, our neighbors.

According to Finlaw-Dusseault, Pinellas County ranks in the top 10 (meaning among the nation’s worst for a mid-sized city) in terms of homelessness within four categories: total homeless, total number of individuals, homeless vets and the chronically homeless. One of the ways Florida cities track local homeless populations is the “point and time count” method. On one day a year, Florida municipalities conduct a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. Three hundred volunteers scour the street, camps, libraries, and other locations in search of those without a home. 

Pinellas County had the second-highest point and time count in the state from 2014 through 2016, just behind Miami-Dade. 

In response, St. Petersburg moved to an exemplary practice in 2016: rapid rehousing. The goal is getting people off the street and into a shelter or home, and benefitting from services. Funding is available for this exact purpose from federal, state, county and city governments.

“It’s both an intervention and a philosophy. People need to be housed before they self-actualize,” Foster said in her presentation. “Housing, a home, is the ultimate solution. And the most cost-effective approach.”

It costs $20K to house someone and provide what are called “wrap-around services,” meaning complete care for whatever their situation is. Meanwhile, it costs upwards of $45K for someone to be homeless. 

The biggest challenge for rapid rehousing? There’s not enough affordable housing in Pinellas County, let alone St. Petersburg.

Families in particular are being made homeless at alarming rates, and there is no family housing in Pinellas County. This is an issue the county and city are working on, but it will be some time before there is a solution. 

In the meantime, funding for rapid rehousing (aka an actual home) is being spent on “bridge housing” — temporary shelter until something permanent opens up. Sometimes, beds are rented from other shelters for $500 a week in the St. Pete Free Clinic. Other times, people are put up in cheap motels for $60 a night. They stay there, or in similar circumstances, until housing becomes available.

Foster explained that they monitor how long it takes for people to find housing. “Most of these people have jobs, if we could get them over the hump with the down payment and electricity, they could keep themselves housed. But we are spending more money keeping them waiting for affordable housing.” 

There are enough dollars to house every homeless veteran in Pinellas County seeking services. But a permanent place to go beyond weekly motels and cots at the shelter is rare. 

If it seems like there are more homeless folks out in the city now, there probably are. Summertime is when families who are struggling financially become more transient. Rapid rehousing happens in the fall before school starts; families get housing so kids can get ready for the school year. 

“Grants run out in July so agencies are out of money by May,” Foster said. She calls it the “summertime swell.” 

The new approach does seem to be working. Rapid rehousing has a lot of work left to do but the backlog of people seeking help is finally abating somewhat, according to the Central Arts Council presentation: People are getting housing, just not everyone, and not quickly.

“We need to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place because it’s way more expensive once they fall off that cliff,” Foster added. 

Are homeless people bad for business? Undoubtedly. The fact remains that Pinellas has one of the highest homeless populations in the state and the nation for a city our size and it isn’t going away anytime soon. It seems simple enough: The solution to housing is a home. But what home? And where? How much of the new housing developments in St. Petersburg are available to those just trying to afford the bare minimum instead of “from the low $400K’s”?

There is some good news: Pinellas County’s point and time count did go down in 2017. More families and individuals that were on the street now have shelter or are in permanent homes. But the numbers are still high, and the struggle remains. 

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