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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]
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