Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Jailing the homeless too costly, Pinellas officials say

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster's plans to remove the sleeping homeless from sidewalks and underpasses, including arrests if necessary, received a cool reception Tuesday from county officials worried about clogged jails and declining tax revenues.

"We are very concerned about anything that increases the jail population — as of today we already have 208 people sleeping on the floor," said Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. One inmate costs the county $126 a day, plus medical expenses that can mount quickly among the homeless, he said.

"We understand the situation the mayor and the cities are in, but the long-term, big-picture solution is not using the criminal justice system to solve a social problem," Gualtieri said.

Last year, the Pinellas County court system processed more than 1,600 arrests of homeless people who violated ordinances like public urination, panhandling and public intoxication, according to Sheriff's Office data. About 900 came from St. Petersburg, occupying police, public defenders, prosecutors, bailiffs and judges.

"The dollar costs are quite large," Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "We need to address the causes of homelessness. Arresting them, even 15 times, doesn't get us anywhere."

In a related matter, Dillinger also said his office plans to challenge the constitutionality of St. Petersburg's recent ban on soliciting along busy city streets.

Foster raised eyebrows Monday when he announced that he is lining up enough new shelter beds to get all of St. Petersburg's homeless off the streets at night.

He said Tuesday that he was not proposing a bricks-and-mortar development, but rather an expansion of existing services.

Though arrests are not his intent, he acknowledged that they could result.

"My citizens are screaming for help," Foster said Tuesday. "It is not in the public's best interest or the person in the street's best interest for that person to sleep under the elements."

The city has long been a magnet for the homeless, with 50 to 60 people sleeping outside City Hall and more than that outside the St. Vincent de Paul food center at 401 15th St. N.

A city ordinance forbids sleeping on public rights of way, but a legal wrinkle makes enforcement difficult when people have no alternative.

The new shelter space — about 150 beds in existing social agencies — would handle excess demand, Foster said.

"It's not my intent to criminalize homelessness,'' he said. "People will have an opportunity to get out of the heat and have running water."

But ultimately, he said, the homeless "will not have an entitlement to sleep in a public right of way."

Assistant Public Defender Raine Johns is dubious. She acquired six or seven new clients recently who were cited in St. Petersburg for sleeping in public.

"The police spend lots of time on this and lots of cost is involved," she said. "I'd rather see that go to help people."

For months, county and city leaders have talked about converting a vacant jail annex on 49th Street to house more than 300 homeless at a time.

"They could be brought in, dropped off and we could provide services," Gualtieri said. "We would make some effort at getting them employment and breaking the cycle."

That idea cooled when a federal grant fell through and the cost estimate came in at $500,000.

The annex might be a good long-term solution, Foster said, but "we've been looking at this holistically for five years. No one has taken the initiative to look at the short term. I can't wait for a long-term solution."

If Foster's intent is to clean up the streets, more arrests are inevitable, said homeless advocate G.W. Rolle, who said a simple citation often turns into an arrest when a homeless person misses court.

Rolle said he studied the criminal records of four homeless men he knows. In the past few years, they collectively spent 775 days in jail on ordinance violations. "That cost $93,000,'' he said. "Why do we insist on arresting and arresting and arresting people? Why don't we come up with some kind of affordable housing?''

Meanwhile, Johns said she will file motions in circuit court soon challenging the constitutionality of the St. Petersburg's ban on street solicitation.

Twenty-five people have been cited under the ordinance.

Among other things, Johns said, a federal judge reviewing it noted that it makes no specific mention of panhandling — only street "vending," which would apply to newspaper sales but not beggars.

Foster disputes that notion. A panhandler is certainly a "vendor," he wrote in a memo.

"The transaction at a busy intersection (the exchange of money for a smile) is precisely the dangerous activity we seek to enjoin," he wrote, "and we will continue to enforce our ordinance with compassion, consistency and vigor."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

Jailing the homeless too costly, Pinellas officials say 07/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 9:05am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Lightning's Brayden Point could be perfect fit alongside Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov

    Lightning Strikes

    SUNRISE — Brayden Point ended last season as the Lightning's No. 1 center, thrust into the role as a rookie due to injuries.

    Lightning center Brayden Point (21) advances the puck through the neutral zone during Friday's preseason game against the Nashville Predators. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
  2. Cannon Fodder podcast: Considering Gerald McCoy's comments


    Greg Auman talks about Gerald McCoy's comments — both about fan criticism online and Donald Trump — in the latest episode of our Bucs Cannon Fodder podcast.

    Gerald McCoy, front, said Monday that he would love to have a conversation with any of the fans who take to social media to criticize him and his Bucs teammates. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  3. Massive crocodile seen roaming the streets, and there was only 1 thing a cop could do


    Name one thing you really don't want to see around 4 a.m. walking around your neighborhood.

    Watch out for that croc.

    A crocodile was seen roaming a street in Miami-Dade.
  4. Pinellas County Sheriff's employee resigns under investigation related to domestic violence arrest


    LARGO — A civilian Pinellas County Sheriff's Office employee resigned Tuesday while under an internal investigation that began after he was arrested on domestic battery charges.

    Joshua Volz resigned Tuesday from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. He had been under investigation after he was arrested for domestic battery, according to police. [Pinellas County Jail]
  5. Mom accused of burying guns after fatal teen shooting declines plea deal


    TAMPA — The Valrico mother accused of hiding the guns after her teenage son shot and killed another boy in their garage told a judge Tuesday that she wants a trial, not a plea deal.

    Heidi Quinn is accused of hiding two guns after her son, Cody, fatally shot 17-year-old Jayquon Johnson in their garage. She faces charges of tampering with evidence. Her son was not charged in Johnson's death because authorities ruled it self-defense. He does face related drug charges. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]