ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said he has seen fewer homeless people downtown after he announced that a crackdown will begin later this month on people who sleep on city sidewalks.
In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Monday, Foster said he also intends to push for an overhaul of the social services system that targets the county's homeless population. He thinks the system should be more streamlined and should be managed by Pinellas County government instead of by the constellation of agencies and nonprofits that oversee it now.
Foster announced June 2 that by month's end, the city will begin enforcing a ordinance that bans sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks, and will take violators to jail or to Pinellas Safe Harbor, a shelter the city and county opened five months ago off 49th Street.
"We're miles ahead of where I thought we would be," Foster said Monday.
Stricter enforcement is part of a broader tactical approach that Robert Marbut, a city consultant, calls "the velvet hammer." The premise is that until some of the homeless are forced by ordinance to leave city streets and parks for the confines of a shelter, they won't. Until some of the groups and agencies that organize public feedings are forced to stop, they won't. Absent tougher enforcement, the homeless population will persist.
"You've got to have that final step to encourage those people to leave," Marbut said.
It's an aggressive approach that Marbut and Foster say has a soft side. Rather than remain on the street, the homeless can have three meals a day, a bed, hot showers and a bathroom at Safe Harbor. In addition, they'll have access to social service workers who will try to get them future shelters, training or jobs.
"It's better than a cardboard box on a sidewalk," Foster said. "It just has to be better than that to move them."
Since Safe Harbor opened Jan. 6, 1,350 people have stayed there, including repeat visitors. Counselors have placed 16 residents in permanent housing by themselves, 42 have been placed in permanent housing with family and friends, 88 have been placed in transitional housing, 36 have been placed in psychiatric or substance abuse treatment, and 154 residents were placed in a more appropriate emergency shelter, according to Bob Gualtieri, chief deputy of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The shelter, which is a former bus building, has a capacity of 370. It averages about 335 people a day. An outdoor "courtyard" living area is expected this summer, increasing the capacity by another 100.
Foster's new approach is more than just enforcement. He envisions Safe Harbor as a "portal" that homeless people must enter to be placed at shelters or with social services across the county. Upon arrival at Safe Harbor, a resident will be tracked by a case management system to determine where he or she needs to go.
Safe Harbor is the linchpin of an overhaul of Pinellas County's current social services system, which Marbut says is disjointed and lacks an overall strategy. He proposes streamlining the current structure, where representatives from agencies and nonprofits help determine where more than $4 million in federal money goes.
"The county needs to manage the darn thing," Foster said. "It's a countywide problem."
Foster said the reception to changing how agencies and nonprofits provide services for the homeless will be the biggest obstacle. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said the recommendation is already getting resistance.
At Pinellas Hope, the county's longer-term shelter, about 1,000 people are served a year. They stay in tents for an average of about 90 days before they are placed in jobs or find permanent housing, said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter.
"If we can streamline and be more effective, no one would argue against that," Murphy said. "But the bottom line is: What are you proposing?"
Private, nonprofit groups play an important role in providing for the homeless that shouldn't be minimized, said Michael Raposa, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, which serves 600 meals a day.
"Nonprofits in Pinellas County have made the system what it is today," Raposa said. "Marbut is a nice guy. But anyone who comes in from out of town should be respectful of the work done by the agencies and groups that have been here. They should work with the groups that exist to make them better."
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.