LARGO — With a tone of skeptical acceptance, city commissioners agreed to look for money to contribute to the proposed Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter while still proffering a number of reservations and critiques on the project.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster appeared at Tuesday night's regular commission meeting to ease concerns raised by Mayor Patricia Gerard and officials. Foster's assurances were enough for commissioners to ask City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig to look into possible ways to contribute funds to the shelter, though most still expressed their concerns.
Foster and Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats have been pushing hard to open a now-vacant annex at the County Jail complex as a homeless shelter by early January. The facility is intended to ease jail crowding and keep the homeless from sleeping on city streets, a problem that disproportionately affects St. Petersburg.
On Tuesday, Foster said the proposed homeless shelter will be a benefit to Largo rather than a burden.
Foster began his pitch with an apology for not including Largo officials in discussions earlier — as the shelter, which would open on the jail complex off 49th Street, sits directly on Largo's eastern border and is serviced by the city's fire department.
"I come humbly with my sincerest apologies," Foster said.
He also apologized for comments made by Coats last week, saying Coats went "off script" by talking to the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.
However, after an hourlong conversation, Foster's assurances seemed to deflate any resistance to the shelter — while at the same time asking for "anything between $25,000 and $50,000" to help pay for the project.
"I think the savings will come back to you readily," he said, in terms of reduced costs in emergency room visits, ambulance trips and police calls to deal with homeless issues that would instead be absorbed by the shelter.
"You changed my mind on this thing," Commissioner Curtis Holmes said.
Though most commissioners accepted the project as a done deal, they still voiced lingering concerns about its effect on Largo and beyond.
Gerard, who agreed the shelter is better than nothing, said she is wary of a recurring expense to fund the shelter, and lamented it would leave out the most vulnerable class of homeless.
"My biggest concern about this project … it's a permanent thing," she said. "And that's money we will not be spending on family shelters and other sorts of homeless issues. The fastest-growing problem is with homeless families and we're not doing a thing about that."
Largo police Chief John Carroll said the facility, which would likely house some homeless people deemed unfit for other shelters due to substance abuse or behavioral problems, has caused residents and business owners to contact him with concerns.
"My concern really comes from the business community and the residents that are at or near this location," Carroll said. "Quality of life … fear of crime. The perception that comes from when people are either leaving that facility or en route to that facility."
Carroll also reported to commissioners that the Police Department would expend at least some additional resources due to the center's opening.
"It would be a staffing drain on us," Carroll said.
Commissioner Robert Murray said he wasn't keen on the idea of the homeless population potentially being centralized near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which is a gateway for tourists.
Commissioner Mary Gray Black didn't voice much support either, on fears the shelter would serve only to empty St. Petersburg of its homeless population and cause an area near Largo to instead become the epicenter for homeless in the county.