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Officials once again mulling over homeless problem in St. Pete, Pinellas County

Sleeping in public areas, like St. Petersburg’s Williams Park, was reduced when Pinellas Safe Harbor opened.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2011)

Sleeping in public areas, like St. Petersburg’s Williams Park, was reduced when Pinellas Safe Harbor opened.

ST. PETERSBURG — Jeff Schorr has witnessed the evolution of the city's homeless problem over the years from his Central Avenue gallery.

Things were bad five years ago, he said, with homeless people using downtown sidewalks to sleep, beg for money and use the restroom.

Things calmed after the city cracked down under the former mayor's tenure, but the issue is again at the forefront, partly because of reports from business owners like Schorr.

"We see aggressive panhandling, public drinking, public urination," Schorr said. "It's things I wouldn't be able to get away with."

Earlier this month, a consultant on homelessness warned the city that it could find itself back where it was a few years ago if it doesn't stay on top of the problem.

"It's been up and down," said Schorr, who owns the Craftsman House. "It got better. But it's gotten worse since then."

According to the latest annual point-in-time homeless count conducted in January, there were nearly 6,000 homeless individuals living in the county. Almost half — 42 percent — were children.

The Tampa Bay Times analyzed arrest data from summer 2012 through the first half of this year and found an increase in the number of people identified as "transient" when they were booked into the Pinellas County Jail.

In 2012, 17.6 percent were transients compared with 23.5 percent in 2013. And in the first half of this year so far, 24.2 percent were identified as transient.

One of consultant Robert Marbut's criticism of the city's current efforts was about the lack of interaction between police and the homeless.

Sgt. Randy Morton said he's tried to respond to that criticism and has officers doing walking beats in and around Williams Park recently. He also said officers recently rounded up several individuals on ordinance violations in other hot spots Marbut identified.

"We're kind of working a two-pronged approach," Morton said. "We had a lot of complaints about Williams Park. And we've been working it so steadily that it seemed to have dispersed. Some of those people are now out in the business district."

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that when cities ignore the problem, the criminal justice system becomes the "dumping ground."

That's one of the reasons officials worked to open Pinellas Safe Harbor three years ago. Marbut was involved in the effort then too.

"This is better than a cardboard box on Central Avenue. It's better than jail," Gualtieri said. "This is working. This is a cost avoidance. If we shut this facility down, people would be back in jail."

Mayor Rick Kriseman recently visited Safe Harbor, taking Neighborhood Affairs Director Mike Dove and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin along for a tour led by the sheriff and his staff.

The group wandered through four living "pods" at the facility and were shown where shelter residents sleep, eat and take classes.

Gualtieri has said he'd like more cooperation — and money to fund Safe Harbor — from all the cities in Pinellas. While it costs less to house someone at Safe Harbor than jail, Gualtieri said his agency still shoulders the bulk of the budget.

Kriseman, who said he plans to increase St. Petersburg's contribution from $100,000 to $150,000, has committed to soliciting more support from other cities for Safe Harbor.

"In fairness," Gualtieri told Kriseman at the end of the tour, "it is an incorrect assumption that everyone is coming here from St. Petersburg. It's totally unfair to say that it's just a St. Pete problem."

Morton said police officers still encounter many people who aren't interested in any shelter.

These individuals are often dubbed the "chronic homeless" because they have spent so much time living on the streets or in shelters. This year's homeless count identified 474 people who fell into that category.

"They just do not want to go," Morton said.

As a result, many, who often are battling mental illness and substance abuse, end up in jail for things like open container, trespassing and other ordinance violations.

Last year, Gualtieri launched a special diversion program for the chronic homeless, where they got more attention and resources.

Everyone seems to agree it worked, but Gualtieri scrapped it for budget reasons.

Marbut has suggested it be brought back. Schorr is hopeful, but said any solution needs to be holistic.

"They are human beings and they need to be treated right," he said. "When we had that chronic diversion program, it helped the homeless, it helped the businesses, it helped the neighborhood. ... It seems like everybody wants to do these recommendations. It really just comes down to dollars."

Times data specialist Bill Higgins contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8643 or on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.

Officials once again mulling over homeless problem in St. Pete, Pinellas County 07/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2014 8:40pm]
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