CLEARWATER — Two years ago St. Petersburg hired a Texas community college professor named Robert Marbut as a consultant on its problems with the homeless. When he concluded his work, he said the decrease in the visible homeless population in St. Petersburg's downtown was a "phenomenal success."
Now, Clearwater leaders have hired Marbut as a consultant and tasked him with finding "action steps" to deal with increases in downtown Clearwater's homeless population.
The goal: Get the homeless out of Clearwater and moved into consolidated programs elsewhere.
Marbut will lead what City Manager Bill Horne calls "the most comprehensive city response to homeless issues" ever undertaken. Marbut will conduct a three-month study of the homeless and programs for them in Clearwater and suggest ways to improve the situation.
In 2006, Marbut founded Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas, a $117 million campus for the homeless built on a system of rewards. Residents begin by sleeping on mats in the "Prospects Courtyard." As they take steps toward self-reliance, they are given hot meals and better beds in campus buildings.
St. Petersburg officials, who were struggling with a growing population of homeless people sleeping on downtown streets and the lawn of City Hall, visited Haven for Hope and later hired Marbut.
Marbut's advice, along with the creation of Safe Harbor, a facility for the homeless and non-violent offenders operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office near Largo, are credited with reducing the number of homeless people congregating in downtown St. Petersburg.
Marbut's contract with Clearwater states he will be paid $5,300 a month, with reimbursements for flights, cars and meals. His recommendations will likely be presented to the city next month.
"This will give us a higher level of professional response to something we know our community is concerned about," Horne said. "We don't want it to drip wherever it's going to drip. We want to consciously do things to help all concerned."
Clearwater residents have long complained that transients commit crimes and social groups attract the homeless too close to homes and neighborhoods by feeding them.
Also, crackdowns in St. Petersburg and Tampa have swelled the population of homeless people in Clearwater. In the last four years, counts of the homeless found increasing numbers of them moving into North Pinellas, said Sarah Snyder, president and CEO of the Homeless Leadership Board.
Though local programs like the Homeless Emergency Project, which Marbut called "one of the best-run programs in the country," have helped provide food, shelter and social services, city efforts have often faltered or met with resistance.
The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP), a shelter and day center on downtown's east end designed by former Clearwater police chief Sid Klein, enjoyed success but closed last year after state funding was frozen and the city withdrew a $100,000 grant.
Area residents often criticized CHIP, claiming it attracted an unsavory crowd. They have said the same about the decades-old St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, which city leaders have been trying push out of Clearwater.
City leaders have used Marbut's advice as the basis for attempts to shepherd the homeless to consolidated facilities like Safe Harbor, next to the Pinellas County jail. Horne said a big part of any response should not "focus on increasing or expanding shelters in Clearwater," but instead work to move the homeless to county facilities outside of the city limits.
Clearwater's approach could create controversy, as it did in St. Petersburg. Homeless advocates have argued that many of today's homeless are not lazy or drug-addled trouble-makers, as some assume, but are families with children, the mentally ill, or battle-scarred veterans who need help.
Indeed Marbut, who has been interviewing Clearwater's homeless in recent weeks, said he has found a harrowing trend: single working mothers, without drug or criminal histories, are appearing here in numbers that "feel higher than the national average."
"They're priced out of the market … and with their kids sleeping in cars behind Targets or Walmarts," Marbut said. "They're not like the most visual (homeless) that knock you over the head."
Most mornings, Marbut teaches courses in government, criminal justice and terrorism at Northwest Vista College, a community college in San Antonio. During nights and weekends, he visits homeless operations and consults for cities.
In Clearwater, Marbut said he can offer system-wide observations that experienced local advocates for the homeless might miss. But some have questioned what ideas a consultant living 1,000 miles away can provide.
"When they hired him in St. Pete, we didn't think it would do any good," said Barbara Green, president and CEO of the Homeless Emergency Project, or HEP, a sprawling five-block campus north of downtown Clearwater. "We just didn't know what he'd bring to the table."
Green, who said she will meet with Marbut soon, also questions how much progress he could make in just three months. She added, "A lot of the stuff that came about with him (in St. Petersburg) was already in process."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.