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St. Petersburg hopes San Antonio, Texas, man can help solve its homeless problem

ST. PETERSBURG — The man from Texas listened as the Rev. Stephen Morris explained his exasperation with downtown's growing homeless population.

"What I can't take anymore is the litter," said Morris, dean of downtown's Cathedral Church of St. Peter. "The human waste on our doorstep, it just doesn't welcome people."

The man nodded knowingly. He offered encouragement and a promise that he knows how to ease street homelessness, which has come to vex St. Petersburg's culture and politics.

After the meeting, Morris said he'd like to believe the stranger could lead the way.

Mayor Bill Foster is counting on it.

The city hired the Texan, Robert Marbut, to come up with a strategy to deal with the growing ranks of homeless on a countywide level. The city will pay him $5,300 a month.

''He's the man," Foster said. "He's great. He has the recipe for what we need to do."

Rarely has a consultant come to St. Petersburg with as much fanfare as Marbut, a tough-talking, 50-year-old community college professor whose background is so eclectic it's almost random.

City officials think he can help solve a problem that so far has eluded them, quite an expectation for someone with a career that until recently had little to do with homelessness.

Time will tell if the city has found a savior in a man who lives 1,000 miles away in San Antonio, where he helped create Haven for Hope, a 37-acre compound that cost $117 million to build. It has become, to some, a model for how to assess and treat the homeless using a reward system.

Marbut promises to be a man of action. He won't be content with writing a report that will gather dust on a shelf.

"I may not change the status quo," Marbut said. "But I will recommend changes, some of which will be tweaks and others that will be drastic rethinks. People will find out, I'm pretty blunt."

• • •

St. Petersburg leaders have long struggled to find effective ways to deal with the homeless.

They passed rules against panhandling and public sleeping. They worked to regulate charities that come to downtown parks to feed the homeless. They even passed a law to limit the number of possessions a homeless person may carry.

Yet downtown continues to be a magnet. Each morning, city workers spray the streets with a disinfectant to mask the stench from homeless people who relieve themselves on streets and alleys.

In a recent count, 146 homeless people were living downtown. By winter, the population could swell to 200.

Countywide, homelessness surges as the money to run shelters dwindles and the ranks of jobless grow.

The search for answers led Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner to a conference on homelessness last year in San Antonio. The two council members met Marbut on a tour of Haven for Hope.

They saw a complex based on a tiered system, where not all homeless are treated alike.

Those who behave badly, or are ambivalent about improving, remain in "Prospects Courtyard," where they sleep outside on mats, receive cold meals, and have access to showers and bathrooms. If they show initiative, they move into dorms, where they get hot meals and take classes on job and life skills.

Those who show promise move to more permanent housing and become eligible for eye and dental care to make them more presentable to employers.

The 15-building complex is a one-stop facility, where all services for the homeless are clustered using one tracking system.

"It was so comprehensive," Danner said. "I knew this was something we needed in St. Petersburg."

• • •

It was a winding path that led Marbut to St. Petersburg as a renowned homeless expert.

After growing up in San Antonio, Marbut attended Claremont McKenna College, outside of Los Angeles. He competed for a spot on the 1980 Olympic squad for the pentathlon, a sport that harkens back to the Napoleonic era by testing skills in pistols, fencing, running, swimming and horseback riding.

It was through this Olympian prism that Marbut got his first professional exposure to homeless issues in 1984. He was hired to corral those who congregated in parks near hotels where VIPs were staying for the Los Angeles Olympics. He helped shoo them 12 blocks away, where they could be fed far from the view of committee members.

He then took a job as chief of staff for San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, where he focused on developing the city as a sports destination.

When Marbut was elected to the City Council in 1994, sports continued to be a focus.

In 1998, the San Antonio Express-News dashed Marbut's mayoral aspirations by revealing an extramarital affair he had years earlier with a woman who worked at the Sports Authority he created.

He held a news conference to rebut allegations that he tried to have the woman fired in an attempt to get custodial rights to a child produced from the affair. At the time, he blamed the authority's executive director, Susan Blackwood, for spreading false rumors.

Blackwood, who is still the foundation's director, said a restraining order prevents her from talking about the case. Marbut said he was similarly bound.

After politics, Marbut mostly stayed out of the spotlight until 2006, when he was tapped by businessman Bill Greehey to create Haven for Hope.

A major philanthropist in San Antonio, Greehey lead a mayor's task force that came up with the idea of a complex for homeless. He gave $8 million to get it started.

Greehey had known Marbut since the 1980s, when he helped support the city's Sports Foundation. Marbut's father also sat on the board of Greehey's energy company.

Greehey said he chose Marbut because he knew he'd be a hard worker.

"The guy just has a tremendous energy level," Greehey said. "He doesn't require a lot of sleep."

When Marbut quit his $165,000 post in July, just weeks after Haven for Hope opened, his exit caught many by surprise.

Greehey said he left on good terms and never intended to stay after the facility was built.

Marbut said Northwest Vista College, where he teaches courses in government, criminal justice and terrorism, asked him to resign from Haven for Hope. He complied, even though his base salary of $56,000 pales in comparison. Tenure, he said, is too valuable to give up.

• • •

Marbut said he visited more than 200 sites across the nation to establish the blueprint for Haven for Hope.

That fieldwork helped convince him there are two classes of homeless.

He believes about 80 percent of the homeless can be reintegrated into working society. The other 20 percent are chronic homeless who will, in all likelihood, remain homeless despite efforts to help them.

Haven for Hope is an extension of that idea. The Prospects Courtyard is a place for triage, to assess the homeless. Those who can be helped move on. Those who can't stay in the courtyard.

But they're off the streets, at least at night, which makes the concept attractive to Foster, whose first year in office has been dominated by complaints about the homeless.

Without available shelter or jail space, Foster has found it difficult to enforce ordinances that prohibit behavior like urinating in public. Police arrest them, but the jail releases them, rendering the exercise pointless.

A potential breakthrough was announced last week by Foster and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. They propose a new shelter on 49th Street next to the county jail.

Foster said the shelter will be different than Pinellas Hope, the county's largest shelter that opened three years ago.

Like Marbut, Foster believes it's important to separate the homeless who can be helped from those who can't. In this view, Pinellas Hope is too nice for some, and counterproductive because it's wasting resources.

Foster wants a courtyard resembling the one at Haven for Hope to serve as an entry point in his own tiered system.

The shelter would give Foster the beds he needs to enforce city ordinances, like banning the people who roll out makeshift beds in front of City Hall every night.

G.W. Rolle, a board member on the county's Homeless Leadership Network, opposes the proposed shelter, saying it merely shifts the problem while helping criminalize a condition controlled by economics, not behavior.

"We can go many places for an answer to homeless problems. We can go around the block, we can go to the moon and we can go to Texas," Rolle said. "It doesn't matter where we go to shop for answers. If we do not have housing as our goal, we will fail."

Marbut disagrees. He views behavior as a crucial reason why some remain homeless. In the next few weeks, he says his No. 1 priority will be to eliminate street feedings. Homeless people are drawn to free food, bathrooms and secure shelter. That's why City Hall has so many, he said, counting 93 on a recent night.

Street feedings don't help, he said — they "enable."

Food must be tied into a rewards system to encourage the homeless toward self-improvement, he said. That, in turn, will reduce the group's visibility.

In San Antonio, the downtown homeless population declined by half since January. Haven for Hope opened its residences in the spring.

Still, a recent census found that more than 400 remain. Many defied directions to go to the shelter, despite the free food and bathrooms.

Marbut said he doesn't believe the census, which was criticized because it was taken before the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew.

"There's an 85 percent reduction of homelessness on the street," he said. "That's a fact. The census is a joke."

In the coming weeks, Marbut will continue his research of Pinellas County. He'll visit shelters. He'll dress as a homeless person to observe their behavior and migratory patterns. Eventually he'll come up with an action plan.

Hopes are high.

"Sometimes you need an outside set of eyes," said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's manager of veteran, social and homeless services. "He's the catalyst."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or

St. Petersburg hopes San Antonio, Texas, man can help solve its homeless problem 11/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 14, 2010 10:18pm]
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