When it comes to dealing with homelessness, Pinellas County officials have been considered a leader in the Tampa Bay area by helping to support the creation of Safe Harbor in Clearwater back in January of 2011. The shelter came at a time when cities in Pinellas were passing and enforcing ordinances to stop panhandling and camping in public parks, and it's largely been considered a success.
But it obviously costs money to keep it running, and the majority of that funding has come from the Pinellas County Sheriffs office, a formula that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says needs to be adjusted.
"It's a countywide problem. It's a statewide problem. So it requires across the board participation," he told CL Monday morning.
Currently the city of St. Petersburg contributes $100,000 to the $2.4 million required to run the facility annually. That pales next to the roughly $1.6 million that the Sheriffs Office is contributing. Recently Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was willing to up his city's funding to $150,000, but Gualtieri says that St. Pete, and virtually every other city in the county, can and should do more.
"I think given that we have an average daily population of about 400 people, a portion of them certainly come from St Pete. The problem that it alleviates, the problem that it solves for St Pete, and for the businesses and residents, I think it's worth more than $150,000," the sheriff says. "Clearwater is putting up $100,000. Largo's not putting up anything." (Largo officials claim that that their fire department responds for calls to service as an in-kind contribution, but Gualtieri says that their fire department and EMS units are paid for by the county).
Ben Kirby, a spokesman for St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, says the mayor has committed $150,000 for Safe Harbor for the FY2015 budget but "he has indicated he wants to work more with Sheriff Gualtieri, and talk to other leaders in the area about increasing their contribution as well."
"I think we can do more," adds St. Pete Councilwoman Darden Rice. "First of all, it's simply the right thing to do. Furthermore, to increase our commitment by another $50k or $100k is a return on investment that makes financial sense to keep people out of jails who do not belong there."
Although Sheriff Gualtieri says homelessness is definitely a problem affecting the entire county, he says in regards to St. Pete that "it looks like we're regressing."
That's what homeless expert Robert Marbut essentially said in a report published last month. Marbut writes that daytime street-level homelessness has gone up and is concentrated in four locations: Williams Park, Mirror Lake, Unity Park and around Vincent de Paul. And he said that many St. Pete police officers cite the discontinuation of the County Sheriff's Homeless Diversity Program — due to budget concerns — as another factor for an increase of homeless in St. Pete.
St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Amy Foster serves on the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership board. She acknowledges that the city has regressed on the issue, though she stresses that not all of the people congregating in Williams Park in the daytime are actually homeless, but in fact are drug dealers trafficking "spice" from other parts of the county.
The Marbut report also says it's critical that the current overnight sleeping program for adults at St. Vincent de Paul becomes a 24/7 holistic program that addresses the root cause of homelessness, something St. Pete officials say they hope to accomplish. Councilwoman Foster also says that because so many of the homeless these days are women and children, the city is devoting additional funds to every organization in the city that provides services for those groups, like St. Vincent de Paul's and the YWCA.
And she says the city is looking at working with the Juvenile Welfare Board in shifting some of the funding currently allocated for homeless shelters to make sure that families can get through the the crisis-hotline system faster and shifted to services more quickly.
Sheriff Gualtieri stresses that the criminal justice system should not be a dumping ground to solve a social problem. "When you take people who are living on the street and they're arrested for a social crime — like urinating in public — you're just using the criminal justice system as a dumping ground. It solves nothing. In fact it exacerbates the problem."