ST. PETERSBURG — A few years ago, homeless people camped out in front of City Hall and panhandlers accosted downtown business patrons.
That doesn't happen as much these days. But the situation could worsen again if the city doesn't step up its efforts, warned Robert Marbut, the city's former consultant on homelessness issues.
The city recently asked Marbut to evaluate its performance, and he delivered his findings Thursday to the City Council.
"This is kind of a good news/bad news/good news situation," he told the council and Mayor Rick Kriseman, who hired him on a short-term contract.
While the number of "nighttime" homeless in St. Petersburg has decreased since the county opened the Safe Harbor shelter next to the jail on 49th Street, daytime hot spots are creeping up. He cited as examples Williams Park, Unity Park, Mirror Lake and the area in front of St. Vincent de Paul.
During nine visits, he observed a group of 45 to 65 people floating between those spots. The worst hours are between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., he said, the gap between when shelters close and a new day program for homeless begins at St. Vincent's.
Police officers also don't seem to be engaging as much with the homeless, Marbut said. "That's a real concern."
Business owners at Thursday's meeting also complained that homeless people were once again loitering in front of their shops.
Marbut had six recommendations, including recommitting the Police Department. The others were:
• Increasing city funding for Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's Safe Harbor shelter. "If Safe Harbor went away, you'd have about 550 people on the street," he said. The city gives the shelter $100,000 each year.
• Asking the Sheriff's Office to reinstate its chronic homeless diversion program. "It's a very expensive program to run, but it's a very successful program," he said, "If you do No. 1 and recommit, that might be an easier sell."
• Deciding if the current homeless outreach team will focus on homeless families or single people to have a bigger impact.
• Supporting St. Vincent's new day program. Officials on Thursday said if the city gave $75,000 more, it could stay open around the clock.
• Starting a program to serve the increasing number of homeless families.
Council members were receptive.
"It's obvious to anyone paying even a little attention that Williams Park has gotten significantly worse over the last four months or so," council member Karl Nurse said. "We've got to step it up. It's as if we almost got the problem solved and we moved our attention elsewhere."
Marbut's recommendations raised eyebrows elsewhere, though. The sheriff said he found it interesting that Marbut would recommend restarting the diversion program. There's no chance of that, he said, unless cities step up. He tried it for several months last year but stopped because of the drain on his budget.
"It was effective, but it was totally on us," he said Thursday night. "Does Robert Marbut have any money in his pocket? He breezes in and out of here and calls for things, but who is going to follow through?"
Gualtieri said he has approached elected officials in St. Petersburg many times in the last few months asking for more support for Safe Harbor. He also said Kriseman has not assumed the task of lobbying for support from other cities, a role that former Mayor Bill Foster played.
Kriseman said he wasn't aware that the city was expected to contribute more — or that he was supposed to be garnering support. He placed some of the blame at his predecessor's feet, but said he will stand by a pledge Marbut said was made to increase the city's shelter contribution to $150,000. He said he will ask his budget director to find the money.
Kriseman also said he will resume talks with other cities. Sixteen Pinellas cities contributed to the shelter in 2011. This year that number was six.
"It's unfortunate that there was a bit of a mission accomplished approach taken by the previous administration," Kriseman said. "This is not a St. Petersburg issue. … Every city needs to step up."
Gualtieri said, contrary to Marbut's statement, that St. Petersburg never promised to automatically increase its funding.
"There's no unfulfilled promise by Bill Foster," he said. "The only thing unfulfilled was St. Pete trying to get more money. And Mayor Kriseman was unaware of that commitment."
Gualtieri said it costs $2.4 million a year to run Safe Harbor, and the Sheriff's Office shoulders $1.6 million of that.
Some cities have increased their contributions over the years. Clearwater used to give $50,000 and now gives $100,000. Others, like Largo, never contributed directly.
Even with St. Petersburg's pledge, $50,000 won't offset much, Gualtieri said. "I think it's important for them to send more money," he said. "I'm thankful for the effort, but that's not enough."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8643 or on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.