Advocates call for countywide funding in wake of Clearwater homeless crackdown
CLEARWATER -- One day after Clearwater passed laws cracking down on homelessness, members of Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Board called on residents and businesses to help temper the problem countywide.
Several members said during the board's meeting Friday that they understood Clearwater's desire to protect the interests of residents, tourists and businesses through its new laws. They said Clearwater is only following the lead of St. Petersburg, which initiated similar laws.
But they also conceded that history has shown such laws tend to push the homeless to another part of the community.
Their solution: A countywide effort that funds social service agencies that cater to displaced homeless individuals.
Clearwater's new homeless law "addresses a real problem in their community, but that only works if we're going to fund the services on the back," said Homeless Leadership Board chairman Ken Welch. "If you really want to solve these problems, you've got to have everybody funding these real solutions."
Welch said Friday that he believed the public expected the group to weigh in on Clearwater's situation. Voicing concern that some board members' opinions might differ, Welch sought and was given permission to write a letter to the Tampa Bay Times, in which he would emphasize his role as the board's chairman and that he wasn't writing on behalf of the entire group.
The letter, he said, will call on residents, local government and the business community to chip in additional funding for local groups that serve the homeless.
The board's discussion followed a final vote Thursday night by the Clearwater City Council on several new laws strengthening the city's homeless crackdown. The five council members approved them unanimously.
Perhaps the most severe of the new laws bans sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the nearby East Gateway neighborhood, home to most of the city's social services. Those offenses are punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Before voting, the council heard comments from seven people - three from Clearwater and one each from Dunedin, Largo, Tarpon Springs and Port Richey. All of them opposed the law, with several arguing that it's unfair to put homeless people in jail.
However, Clearwater officials call the new laws a weapon of last resort for police, allowing them to move the homeless into shelters or social services. Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette said that before officers arrest anyone, they must first issue a warning, make sure no beds in homeless shelters are available, and also give that person a chance to move.
"No individual will be suddenly subject to being issued a notice of violation," he said.
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who attended the Homeless Leadership Board meeting Friday, also emphasized that arrests are a "last resort."
He has proposed that the council set aside $225,000 in the city's 2013 budget - $100,000 for Pinellas Safe Harbor, $50,000 for Homeless Emergency Project and $25,000 each for Pinellas Hope, RCS and the Salvation Army - to assist the organizations with operations.
The city, Horne said, has contributed to the agencies in the past, but with smaller sums that were primarily earmarked for facility improvements.
"What's different in 2013 and going forward is that that funding is very likely to be recurring. I can't tell you what those funding levels will be," Horne said. "But there is at least a commitment to our need to support - at least on the back end - those agencies that we think will be impacted. ... We need to be able to help those agencies address those individuals."
But with budget crunches plaguing local governments across the country, board members say, no one city can be expected to attempt to eradicate homelessness alone.
They called on businesses, beach communities and other Pinellas cities that haven't yet encountered problems with loitering or homeless camps to chip in.
Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he met recently with business leaders, who understand that "government cannot fix this problem by themselves" and are willing to help out.
Saying "we can't just keep slapping Band-Aids on things," board member and former Clearwater councilwoman Carlen Petersen said social service advocates "need to keep hounding the community that yes, we're trying to solve the problem but we need funding."
"We need to work as a community or we're just moving people who need the most help or are the most difficult down the road," said Sandra Lyth, chief executive officer of Clearwater's Hispanic Outreach Center. "So I applaud your effort, commissioner (Welch), because the time may be right to go talk to the beaches and Largo and others who don't want this problem to come to them."
--Keyonna Summers and Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writers