PSTA roundtable on the unhoused in Pinellas yields a familiar refrain—we need more housing

Discussing PSTA's recent fare debacle was off the table.

click to enlarge An 2016 aerial photograph of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida. - Photo via cityofstpete/Flickr
Photo via cityofstpete/Flickr
An 2016 aerial photograph of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) planning committee met last Wednesday with homeless advocacy groups to discuss the county’s growing unhoused population and ways to address it. Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers requested the meeting last month, after PSTA’s board voted to implement fares a month early for St. Pete’s fare-free SunRunner bus.

In the run up to PSTA's decision, St. Pete Beach commissioners lamented that all they could do to address the homeless riders was to "make their lives miserable." Last month, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told PSTA’s board that homeless people utilizing free SunRunner fares were coming to the beach and “accosting” residents.
He called what’s happening, “social crime related to a chronic homeless population,” costing his department $10,000 weekly for additional patrols. In response, PSTA’s board approved $2.25 fares across the SunRunner route beginning Oct. 1, a month ahead of schedule.

But Flowers told the groups that the meeting was not a discussion about fares. “This is to talk about services to persons who are unhoused or homeless,” she added.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, PSTA’s ADA officer Ross Silvers emailed attendees a list of questions including, “What alternatives do chronic homeless have to sleeping & showering on Pinellas County public beaches?”

Allendale Methodist Pastor Andy Oliver and others voiced concerns that Silver’s question itself was potentially discriminatory. He cited HUD’s definition of chronic homelessness as someone with a disabling condition and thus considered a protected class.

“If all it took to stop people from sleeping on our beaches, our streets, our sidewalks, our parks, was to simply criminalize it, St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg could say they ended homelessness,” Oliver said at the meeting. “But they haven’t…You can no more ban people from sleeping than you can from breathing.”

Dr. Kanika Tomalin, CEO for Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete and former St. Pete deputy mayor, said she worried about how Silver’s question framed the conversation.

“There's quite a distinction between working to identify resources to help our houseless neighbors and optimizing those resources that exist,” Tomalin said at the meeting. “That is very different than mitigating the perceived impact those houseless neighbors might be having on residents and recreation.”

Flowers said she didn’t ask anyone to send questions before the meeting.

“Those questions were meant to try and get the juices flowing,” Silver said at the meeting.

PSTA has not yet responded to inquiries about Silvers’ questions.

“I find it rather concerning that we’ve focused on the beaches in this conversation,” Dr. Monika Alesnic, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance, said at the meeting. “I think we need to face the bigger issues with our unhoused citizens.”

According to Alesnic, Pinellas County has the second highest population of unhoused veterans in the country. In HUD’s 2022 “Point In Time” or PIT count, Florida accounted for 7% or 2,279 of veterans experiencing homelessness nationwide. “That really bothers me, it should bother everyone in this room,” Alesnic added.

The problem, says Alesnic, is housing; there isn’t enough and what’s available isn’t affordable. Right now, Alesnic says she has 130 families on a shelter waitlist.

Joan Andrade is with Personal Enrichment for Mental Health Services or PEMHS, a facility where Baker Acted folks are taken for treatment. She concurred with Alesnic that most shelters have waitlists, adding that many chronic homeless have compounding factors, like criminal records, preventing them from being placed somewhere.

“I don't know how we can keep people from sleeping on the beach or in public areas,” Andrade said at the meeting. “There's just no place for them to go.”

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