CLEARWATER — What could soon become Pinellas County's busiest homeless shelter will open its doors next month with the cautious blessings of its landlord.
The Pinellas County Commission voted Tuesday to support the shelter, planned for a now-vacant jail annex on 49th Street, but only by paying for about $200,000 in utility bills that were already part of the jail's budget.
Any cost overruns, commissioners said, must be borne by Sheriff Jim Coats, who is pushing the project as a way to relieve jail overcrowding.
"We want to make this clear, there is no coming back to the well to the county for anything, period,'' commission chairwoman Karen Seel told Coats. "This is it.''
The commission also told Coats to meet with nearby business owners and residents to calm fears that the shelter will increase crime in the High Point area.
"They have concerns and I don't blame them,'' said Commissioner John Morroni. "There is a school across the street. They don't want people urinating in front of them or robbing them.
With homelessness rising in a sour economy, public officials have been discussing the jail annex plan for months. Coats, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office and other court officials see the shelter as a way to relieve an overcrowded jail, where up to 150 inmates sleep on pallets on the floor.
Homeless people — especially those with mental health and substance abuse problems — are frequently arrested on minor ordinance violations like trespassing and public intoxication. When a judge releases them pending a hearing, they often fail to return, which triggers more arrests.
People pass through the jail dozens of times a year. One man was arrested 74 times in the past five years, costing the county $68,000 in jail expense, said Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The shelter plan — dubbed Pinellas Safe Harbor — calls for diverting people from the criminal justice system into the annex, which would initially house up to 250 people but has the capacity to grow to 500.
Police officers would file affidavits saying people had committed minor ordinance or misdemeanor violations, but would not book them into the jail.
Instead, they could live in the annex or come and go, as long as they took some positive step to improve their lot, such as getting substance abuse counseling or seeking a job. Case managers would help direct them to services.
The shelter would also serve as a transitional way station for people coming out of state prisons with no money, no plans and nowhere to stay.
Housing people in the shelter would cost the county about $25 a day vs. $126 at the jail, Gualtieri said. He "guaranteed'' commissioners that plan would allow the sheriff's office to cut at least three jail deputies, creating savings that would show up in next year's budget.
The shelter's $1.8 million annual cost would primarily come from grants that provide services for habitual offenders, people re-entering society from prison and people with mental health issues.
The city of St. Petersburg — a magnet for the homeless — will kick in $100,000, provide one officer for security and a van to transport the shelter's residents to and from the downtown area, Mayor Bill Foster said.
Besides relieving the jail, the shelter would offer St. Petersburg a place to send people who now sleep on downtown sidewalks, Foster said. Pressed by commissioners, he acknowledged that people who refused could be arrested.
But "this is not just St. Petersburg's problem,'' said Foster, who is making the rounds of other municipalities to drum up support. Pinellas Park has pledged $50,000, he said, and Largo and Clearwater officials have indicated they will chip in as well.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe recalled one alcoholic who "got arrested every other day until he died and he was an ornery cuss."
"People have been complaining about this for the 38 years I've been in business," McCabe said. "This is the first time I've seen a real collaboration to solve the problem."
Several High Point residents who addressed the commission weren't so pleased.
James Byers said he used to be a police officer and was familiar with homeless people who flocked to downtown St. Petersburg and along Central Avenue. "Now you want to take a problem that has caused so much grief for the mayor and transport them into my neighborhood.''
Most of those homeless people are already frequenting High Point, Gualtieri said. They get released from jail or bond out, sometimes "at 2 a.m. in the morning'' and hang around 49th Street, waiting to get back to their usual haunts.
"We can put a roof over their heads, so when they get out of jail ... they're not just wandering around out there,'' he said. "Hopefully, we will provide an improvement to that community.''