ST. PETERSBURG — A shelter for the homeless and newly released jail inmates could open within the next few weeks on land along 49th Street that was once used by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Bob Gaultieri, chief deputy of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, said $600,000 in county money has been set aside to pay for the shelter. The facility had been used as an annex to the jail at 14400 49th Street N before budget cuts shut it down earlier this year.
Gaultieri and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster had worked on the plan for months before they unveiled it to a group of elected officials, agency representatives and advocates for the homeless Friday.
Gaultieri said more than 500 people could stay at the facility, which is composed of four housing units that already have electricity, plumbing and Internet service after the county spent $3 million on upgrades. It could, however, be expanded so that more could sleep outside in a courtyard, Foster said. They said they want to open it by January, but could open it sooner if there's cold weather.
The announcement was embraced by most of those attending the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network meeting and hailed as one of the most comprehensive approaches to homelessness that the region has ever considered.
"It puts us light years ahead," said Martha Lenderman, a member of the Juvenile Welfare Board. "I'm so impressed by it. If we don't take advantage of this, then it's a failure of political will."
But an advocate on the Homeless Leadership Network said he was worried about the proximity of the homeless to recently released jail inmates.
"I have a problem with the criminalization of people just because they're poor," said G. W. Rolle.
Gaultieri said he didn't expect that many inmates leaving jail would use the facility as a shelter. He said those who do will be kept apart from the homeless.
The Rev. Bruce Wright, who represents homeless groups, said the facility made him uneasy.
"It reminds me of Indian reservations and Japanese internment camps," Wright said. "We can say it's voluntary, but law enforcement will pressure the homeless and make them go to this facility. We're doing this because we don't want them to be visible."
Though the Sheriff's Office has set aside annual operation money for the shelter, there are still questions about how sustainable it can be. Foster said it will cost more than $600,000 a year, but he did not say how much more. Gaultieri said two full-time sheriff positions will be added to oversee the facility. Foster said a city police detective will be added as well. Other staffers will be private security guards.
Commissioner Ken Welch said the county must still approve it. While he called it a great concept, Welch asked Foster and Gaultieri to report back next month with more details. He said he was especially concerned about where the rest of the money would come from and how the homeless would be kept away from the former inmates.
If approved, the facility would refashion how the county approaches homelessness. Foster is modeling the approach after Haven for Hope, a $117 million campus in San Antonio, Texas. Considered by many as an innovation in social services, Haven for Hope is a multitiered approach to providing services to the homeless that rewards good behavior.
St. Petersburg has hired its former chief executive, Robert Marbut, and is paying him $5,300 a month to advise officials on how to design a system that can better track homeless people. The old PSTA facility would be used as a first phase in treatment, a veritable triage center where the homeless would come and be assessed by social workers and told where to go next. Some would be placed in Pinellas Hope, the county's largest shelter. Others would be put in job programs or in more permanent housing.
A chief aim is to remove chronic homelessness from downtown St. Petersburg streets — a problem that has come to dominate city politics. The City Council passed a ban on panhandlers earlier this year, and city attorneys have successfully defended the legality of ordinances that prohibit behaviors associated with homelessness, such as public urination.
Because the ranks of the homeless have grown with the bad economy, shelter space hasn't been available and the city hasn't been able to enforce these ordinances. If this facility opens, the city could enforce them and remove the persistent homeless from city streets, Foster said.
"It takes care of the chronic, those who are unplaceable, those with recurring inebriate problems and criminal histories," he said. "We need space availability for the chronic."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.