CLEARWATER — A metal amnesty lock box is ready to receive illegal drugs and weapons. Television monitors and security cameras are running. Cups with toothpaste and a brush are lined up.
A new shelter for Pinellas County's homeless opens today, but its inaugural crowd will be smaller than originally anticipated.
Pinellas Safe Harbor — which officials ultimately expect to house 500 — will operate with an initial cap of 25 people as the Sheriff's Office and social service providers learn the ropes.
The first arrivals will come from the general homeless population, not people who are arrested or released from jail — the groups that Sheriff Jim Coats is targeting to help save money at the jail.
After pushing hard in December to open the shelter, Coats and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster decided a softer start was needed to make sure the shelter runs correctly.
At a news conference Wednesday, Coats and Foster said they also need more time to start social work programs.
"We're going to meet next week, and we're going to have 10 different things that we never thought of," Foster said.
Robert Marbut, a Texas consultant hired by St. Petersburg to craft plans to ease homelessness, intends to stay there for much of the next three days to assist.
The slowdown comes after the project briefly snagged when Coats focused on helping released inmates and minor offenders at the shelter, but Foster pressed to help anyone homeless.
By next week capacity is expected to go to 50 and the jail diversion program will begin. Homeless people cited and jailed for crimes like trespassing and drunkenness will be given the option to go to the shelter.
Their cases would be kept off their record if they complete court-ordered community services and other programs. Ultimately, released inmates from state prisons and jails could stay there too as capacity hits 250 and up.
The shelter will stay voluntary.
The shelter could reach its full capacity in as few as four months, Foster said. He believes that would provide enough spaces to allow the city to enforce its law against sidewalk sleeping. If that happens, it could touch off another debate on how St. Petersburg treats the homeless.
Federal courts have ruled that cities cannot arrest people for sidewalk sleeping unless shelter beds are an available option. St. Petersburg rarely enforces its law because of full shelters.
"When are we going to enforce the ordinance? Hopefully never — hopefully we never have to," Foster said.
But he also said the shelter won't make it "open season" on cities and their laws in cases of violence or wrongdoing.
At last count, the county's homeless coalition found 2,200 people in uninhabitable places but only 550 beds. Sarah Snyder, executive director of the county's homeless coalition, said that doesn't necessarily conflict with Foster, because of the turnover of homeless people. But the coalition opposes making homelessness a crime.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.