CLEARWATER — The city's homelessness consultant says Clearwater's new get-tough laws are working.
There are noticeably fewer people living on Clearwater's streets and sleeping in its parks, says Robert Marbut, a Texas consultant who's helping to guide the city's policies on the homeless.
Authorities have been breaking up illegal encampments, posting "no trespassing" signs at businesses, and shifting more of the homeless to the county's Safe Harbor shelter next to the county jail, he said.
There's unfinished business, however. The city still is trying to discourage street feedings and panhandling, Marbut said. Then there's the thorny problem of what to do about homeless families with children, who can't stay at Safe Harbor.
On Thursday night, Marbut gave the City Council an update on how things have been going since the city enacted a series of new laws on Aug. 2. The laws are aimed at toughening the city's handling of its homeless population.
Perhaps the most severe new law bans sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and rights of -way on Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the nearby East Gateway neighborhood.
Advocates for the homeless say the city is criminalizing homelessness by banning activities associated with basic survival. But Clearwater officials call the laws a weapon of last resort, allowing police to move the homeless into shelters or social services.
Marbut, who's being paid $25,000 for his services, says that two years ago, he was involved in a count that found 265 to 300 homeless people in Clearwater per day. This past May, they were finding 180 to 195 homeless people per day. On Aug. 2, when Clearwater passed its get-tough laws, they were finding 145 to 165 per day.
Now, he says, there are 50 to 60 left, many of them hanging around the Clearwater Main Library. Police outreach teams are learning more about them.
"We now know who these people are by name," Marbut said. "We almost can tell you where they are, and what the impediment to getting them into programming is."
He touched on a number of homeless issues:
Panhandling: It's still rampant in two spots — the intersection of Sunset Point and Enterprise roads near U.S. 19, and also along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard around Keene Road. "Those are the two panhandling pockets that we still have," Marbut said. "The best way to stop that is for citizens to stop giving money out the window."
Encampments: Since Aug. 2, police have found 30 homeless encampments in Clearwater — "major encampments with multiple people," Marbut said. They've broken up 29 of them.
Warnings and arrests: Under the new laws, the city's strategy is to ratchet up the consequences if people don't comply. Since Aug. 2, police officers have issued more than 300 "informal warnings" to homeless people who were violating the law. That's been followed by about 250 "formal warnings."
Out of about 85 homeless people police have taken to Safe Harbor, 55 percent have gone voluntarily. Forty-five percent have been taken there on a "notice to appear," meaning that they've been told to choose between Safe Harbor or jail.
Marbut estimated that five or six homeless people have been arrested in Clearwater since he began his work here on May 17. He said most were jailed because they'd been banned from Safe Harbor for fighting.
"We don't want to fill the jail up," he said.
However, there is one especially glaring problem: homeless children.
Clearwater has designated Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope, a tent city not far from Safe Harbor, as its primary resources for housing the homeless. But neither shelter accepts children.
Marbut says families are given access to a county hotline of "virtual case managers" who can direct them on where to stay. Homeless advocates question whether that's enough.
Marbut agrees that housing them is a huge challenge.
"We need about 350 units tonight countywide," he told the City Council. "What you have now are single moms with their kids in cars, and they literally move all night long behind the big-box shopping centers over on U.S. 19."
In the morning, the mothers take their kids to school and go to work. They avoid contact with authorities because, Marbut said, "they don't want Child Protective Services to show up."
City Council member Bill Jonson wondered what else can be done for them, especially with so many empty homes in the area.
Marbut said that Pinellas County needs to take the lead on that problem. He said the county's Homeless Leadership Board and the local Apartment Owners Association have discussed starting up a new housing program for homeless families.
"There's a countywide effort that's starting to get traction," he said. "Families and children, I think, is really going to be the next phase."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.