CLEARWATER — The City Council expressed support Tuesday for a plan hatched by Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster to open a large homeless shelter near the Pinellas County Jail.
That idea has gotten some criticism, but Clearwater officials think it's a worthwhile step that will help combat a growing problem with homelessness. They're even willing to support the plan financially — to a point.
On another front, Clearwater is also getting ready to launch its first "street outreach team," pairing a police officer with a social worker to deal with homeless people around downtown. St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park already have such teams. Clearwater plans to start one in January or February.
City officials also want to try to persuade church groups to stop feeding homeless people on the street, because they think that's not helpful.
All of this came out of a special meeting on the homeless that Clearwater leaders held Tuesday.
They heard from Texas consultant Robert Marbut, who has been hired by St. Petersburg to come up with a strategy to deal with the homeless problem on a countywide level. In San Antonio, Marbut helped create Haven for Hope, a 37-acre, $117 million compound that has become a model for how to get homeless people off the street.
No one in Pinellas County is going to build a $117 million compound for the homeless. But Marbut offered plenty of advice about how Pinellas' many homeless programs should be coordinated better.
He added that street feeding programs, while "well-intended," are "probably the most unproductive thing you can do," because they just enable the homeless instead of engaging them to solve their problems.
Clearwater officials are excited about the idea of opening a 250-bed homeless shelter at a closed jail annex on 49th Street in Largo.
Currently, local police often put homeless people in jail a cost of $126 a day. The sheriff says the new shelter, which could open as early as next month, would save money by accepting homeless people accused of misdemeanors like public intoxication, at a cost of roughly $25 a day.
"We need to make certain we're engaged in the countywide discussions," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "Ultimately, we're going to have to figure out what we're willing to expend."
Clearwater has initially been asked to contribute $50,000 to the project. "I think it will be money well spent," he said.
Council member Paul Gibson added, "I don't think we're spending $50,000. I think we're saving $75,000 or $100,000." But he wanted to know if other Pinellas cities are going to be contributing.
Vice Mayor John Doran noted that in the most recent Pinellas County homeless count, 58 percent of the homeless found were in St. Petersburg, and 16 percent were in Clearwater, which is why those two cities are being asked to contribute funding.
Hibbard said other cities will be asked to chip in as well.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.