ST. PETERSBURG — It was just last year when downtown St. Petersburg was beset by what seemed to be an intractable homeless problem.
Dozens slept on sidewalks most nights. Williams Park, a central, prominent downtown park, was dominated by homeless people. The smell of lemon-scented disinfectant, sprayed to clean sidewalks and streets, grew stronger by the day.
Compare that to now. Sidewalks no longer double as beds, Williams Park has far fewer homeless people, and the disinfectant smell is no more.
Much of the credit for this makeover belongs to Mayor Bill Foster, the City Council and the consultant they hired last year to deal with the growing ranks of the homeless: Robert Marbut.
In his final report last week to the council summarizing his work, Marbut called downtown's turnaround a "phenomenal success."
While there's no question the visibility of the homeless was greatly diminished this year, appearances can be deceiving. The homeless ranks continue to grow, service providers say, but residents see fewer because city ordinances keep them from public view. Many more homeless people are getting services they weren't last year, the providers say, but continuing this commitment will further burden a social services system on the brink.
Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County shelter that opened in January, is a prime example of the challenge ahead. It was the No. 1 factor in removing homeless people from downtown St. Petersburg streets.
Yet it costs $1.8 million to operate each year, a level of funding covered only through September. Come next October, it needs a funding source that has yet to be identified, posing a risk that the past year's advances are only temporary.
"It's kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind right now," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "St. Petersburg is really excited because their downtown is nicer. But if Safe Harbor closes, we'll have 400 people roaming county streets. We've moved the ball quite a bit this past year, but we still have a ways to go."
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Long a problem downtown, homelessness seemed to be getting worse last year.
Nearly 150 people were living on downtown streets. County shelters were maxed out.
St. Petersburg had ordinances on the books aimed at behavior associated with homelessness — panhandling, urinating in public, sleeping on sidewalks, having an open container — but had trouble enforcing them simply because there was no jail space.
"We told the city that the jail can't be your dumping ground," said Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri. "If they brought us someone with an open container, we were pushing them out the back door, not even processing them. They'd bring them in, we'd push them out. We were in a downward spiral with no way out."
Gualtieri, then the chief deputy of the Sheriff's Office, decided the best way to address the situation was to open a shelter next to the jail, funneling homeless people brought in for minor criminal violations there, rather than into the justice system. That was about May 2010. He floated the idea to Foster that summer.
In October 2010, Foster and the council hired Marbut, who helped to create Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas, a 37-acre compound for the homeless.
Marbut had experience in operating shelters like the one Gualtieri and Foster envisioned on 49th Street.
Safe Harbor proved an immediate success that is still evident. Downtown's homeless population plummeted and remains low. In January, 120 homeless people could be found downtown, according to St. Petersburg police. In the last week of October, that number had dipped to 21.
But shelter space is an ever-precious commodity. Pinellas Hope, the county's longer-term shelter, has 400 people and no available space.
"I believe St. Petersburg has seen a drop in their visible homeless," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter. "But people in Clearwater and northern Pinellas are seeing more homeless than ever. Everyone is at capacity."
How well the county will handle the continued demand for shelter space is unclear. On Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council will vote to approve $100,000 for Safe Harbor. Some other cities will contribute. Some won't.
But the contributions are still a fraction of what Safe Harbor needs after federal startup grants expire Sept. 30.
"I'm very concerned about funding after that," Gualtieri said. "The money is going to run out."
If it does, it would be a domino effect. Aside from more homeless on the street, the jail would once again be jammed, costing taxpayers more. It costs $106 a day to house an inmate, compared to $20 a day at Safe Harbor.
"If Safe Harbor closed, there's no doubt the cities would continue to use the jail as a dumping ground," Gualtieri said. "And we can't do that. There needs to be collaboration on a countywide level."
Marbut and most council members said another need is creating a new facility to provide services to families. Safe Harbor isn't viable for children.
"Our city has too many women in cars at night with children," said council member Steve Kornell. "It's really astounding."
But maintaining the success of Safe Harbor will be difficult, let alone tackling new homeless issues.
Foster said it's a daily struggle to persuade other cities to contribute to shelter needs.
"We have made tremendous strides," Foster said. "Sustainability is our biggest lot to bear right now … but we're going to maintain our ground."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com