CLEARWATER — The actual number of homeless people living in downtown streets and parks is not growing, as it has appeared to some city officials and business owners over the past five months, a hired consultant concluded this week.
Instead, a proliferation of the drug spice over the past year has created a more aggressive and obvious presence as regional dealers hire homeless individuals to sell and users smoke the drug in the open.
"You can't have a commingled community or the problem will feel worse, actually be worse, than the numbers are, and it becomes deadly to the community experiencing homelessness," said Texas-based homeless consultant Robert Marbut, whom the city paid about $20,000.
Starting in June, Marbut interviewed people living on the streets, merchants, city officials and homeless service providers; went undercover as a homeless person; analyzed statistics; and met with police. He submitted a wide-ranging report of recommendations for city officials that centers on eliminating spice in the community and better coordinating homeless services.
Marbut said the timing of meals that a handful of organizations serve to the homeless downtown daily, and a lack of "wrap-around holistic services" tied to those meals, is "exacerbating the homeless situation in Clearwater."
For the first time ever, the roughly half-dozen organizations that serve meals to the homeless downtown met in one room Monday, with Marbut and city officials, to discuss a better, coordinated schedule and how to integrate services.
St. Vincent de Paul Community Kitchen and Resource Center executive director Peter Scalia agreed to move his morning meal start time from 8:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. and plans to launch a job-training program on site to link with the breakfasts.
"All the years I've been assisting with this, it's the first time I've seen everybody really trying to come up with a solution that works for everyone," Scalia said.
The three organizations that rotate serving evening meals on different days at Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, and the ministries that serve daily in the parking lot beside the Clearwater Police Department, agreed to change their wide-ranging start times to about 5:30 p.m. consistently.
Peace Memorial Pastor Bob Scott said the stricter start times will give the homeless time during the day to look for jobs, enroll in training or receive other services. Before, the homeless regularly lined up at the church gates about 3:30 p.m. for the 5:30 p.m. meal and some wouldn't leave until hours later.
However, whether or not the meals are exacerbating or enabling the homelessness as Marbut suggested is complicated, Scott said. Not all who depend on the meal services live on the street — many are families stretching their budgets or working people who've fallen on hard times, Scott said.
"If you haven't eaten, it's really hard to find work or worry about anything else," Scott said. "Sometimes we're just enabling survival from day to day. But are we creating a great dependency in this population? That's probably true, too. Now it's: How do we provide relief to people who need relief, but how do we help them take responsibility for their own recovery?"
Scott said the groups also plan to begin meeting quarterly to keep coordinating services and maintain a line of communication.
Clearwater police Sgt. Rodney Johnson said that since the department got the blessing of the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on June 16 for six downtown officers to start making arrests on the spot using their training and judgment, the chronic presence of the drug has declined. Because there is no field test for spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, law previously required the department to send samples to a lab for testing before arresting a suspected user, which can take more than a month.
Not all homeless individuals use spice. And not all of the "hard-core" spice users and sellers are homeless. But the communities have become intertwined, Johnson said.
Marbut has suggested a public awareness campaign for residents, business owners and city employees to know how to report spice incidents so the police can make arrests. Johnson said the most useful method is the department's Tip 411 page through its website.
Marbut also proposed a more uniform way for the city to conduct a monthly count of the homeless "in order to be an early warning system to street level spikes."
Based on Marbut's method, he estimates there are 52 to 60 individuals experiencing street-level homelessness near downtown, which is down from the 310 he counted when first hired by the city as a consultant in 2011.
Some service providers had been counting up to 150 homeless people in recent months, but that could have included duplicates and those who were present for meals but not living on the streets, Marbut said.
Lina Teixeira, who owns Studio 617 on Cleveland Street, said she's seen a dramatic decrease in the intensity of spice use over the past several months. Earlier this year, she would see users convulsing from the effects of spice or overdosing in nearby Station Square Park "almost daily."
Since Clearwater police have been able to make arrests without a lab test, Teixeira said, those incidents have nearly gone away. She credited Marbut and the Police Department for being able to identify the dealers and see how they were victimizing the homeless community.
On Tuesday, Marbut and city officials held a meeting for downtown merchants to discuss next steps.
Teixeira was one of only a few business owners who showed up. Although she said some couldn't attend because they were still focused on Hurricane Irma recovery, she took it as a sign of progress.
"The fact that there was a lack of attendance, to me, tells me it's less of an issue," Teixeira said. "It makes me feel we have a finger on the pulse."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.