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Crime complaints spike near new Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter

In just three months, Pinellas Safe Harbor has grown into the county's largest homeless shelter.

Averaging 300 residents a day, it promises a further expansion by using federal funding to house those arrested for minor crimes.

But the much-heralded project is making some residents of the nearby High Point neighborhood uneasy.

Within a mile of the shelter, which is off 49th Street near the jail, crime reports have spiked.

During the shelter's first three months, area police handled 163 complaints of crimes like assault and burglary, vandalism and trespassing — nearly double the 83 calls logged in the same period last year.

"If this is such a good idea, why didn't the sheriff and some of the commissioners put it in their neighborhoods?" said Ken Harper, 59, a retired firefighter who has lived in High Point for 33 years.

Suspicious people have shown up in the neighborhood, like a man who knocked on doors one Sunday evening to say he was selling newspaper subscriptions — an odd hour, Harper said.

The neighborhood already had a mixed reputation before the shelter opened, Harper said.

Sheriff Jim Coats, who spearheaded the project with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, had promised increased enforcement by deputies. In public meetings weeks before the shelter opened, he minimized the chance of crime rising for neighbors due to homeless people.

And in fact, not every suspect is homeless.

A burglary reported Feb. 1 on Harper's street involved a stolen boat motor, but the owner suspected maintenance workers, not shelter residents, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. In a January case, a neighboring woman's car was keyed with no witnesses. An aggravated battery case in March resulted in the arrest of a fellow resident.

Yet, a transient with past ties to the neighborhood was charged with armed robbery there last month, and faces a murder charge out of St. Petersburg, too. His last address was Clearwater.

The Sheriff's Office wasn't alarmed by the increase. With more deputies watching, crime reporting can increase, said Pinellas County sheriff's Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri.

Deputies also took responsibility in January to police the courts and other justice system buildings nearby.

As homeless people pass his 150th Avenue N home, however, Ron Stefke shrugs it off — there has been no reason to worry about trouble yet. But his family is less comfortable seeing them pass, he said. He dislikes watching people push shopping carts of belongings up sidewalks.

"That looks trashy — in any city, anywhere," said Stefke, 49.

Other residents support the shelter.

Gina Sickles, 42, a self-employed caretaker and mother, said it gives homeless people a chance to change their lives.

"It seem like it's really good as far as rehabilitation," said Sickles, who helps feed some shelter residents at her church, the Vineyard Church of Clearwater.

In a March 27 report, consultant Robert Marbut recommended increasing the shelter's capacity to 550 — generally, its maximum. An expansion to build a courtyard geared toward inebriated homeless people is planned this year.

Foster and city officials want to increase shelter capacity, a move that would enable them to enforce the city's ban on sidewalk sleeping. After initially seeing a strong drop in homeless people downtown, their numbers have increased recently.

Marbut cautioned Tuesday that 550 wouldn't necessarily be reached and that officials shouldn't "force expansion."

Gualtieri said there's not enough staff and support to handle so many residents yet.

One reason is that federal officials have not yet approved using a $500,000 grant to start diverting homeless people facing minor crimes from the jail to the shelter. Details on how the money will be spent are still being reviewed, despite early hopes the program would begin by March.

The green light to spend the money is expected soon, federal and county officials said. But even then, Gualtieri has reservations about maxing out the capacity.

"We have to make sure what we do is sustainable, that we don't bite off more than we could chew," he said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Crime complaints spike near new Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter 04/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 1:51pm]
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