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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster to Tampa: Deal with your own homeless

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has a message for Tampa: Don't depend on St. Petersburg to deal with your homeless — especially during next year's Republican Convention.

The warning came during Thursday's City Council meeting, when police officials described a slight increase in homeless people from Hillsborough County seeking services in Pinellas, such as bus tickets or shelter space at Pinellas Safe Harbor.

Already, the county shelter that opened in January is at capacity, with an average population of about 400.

"Noting trends that (some of the homeless) are coming from Hillsborough or Tampa, that will be dealt with," Foster told council members. "I've already had conversations with Hillsborough County and the mayor of Tampa. This needs to be dealt with, especially since they have a high-profile event coming up next year and they've done absolutely nothing to deal with that situation."

His words came the same day that the Tampa City Council, after nearly a year of often-anguished debate, took the first step toward adopting a six-day-a-week ban on panhandling.

As proposed, Tampa would allow newspaper vendors and those engaged in purely "expressive" speech — waving signs, picketing, handing out leaflets, even wearing advertising costumes — every day. On Sundays, they could be joined by other roadside solicitors, including fundraisers and panhandlers.

Foster also expressed his disappointment Thursday that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn hasn't responded to his offer to let homeless consultant Robert Marbut, who gave guidance to St. Petersburg, provide similar advice for Tampa.

"I don't understand the resistance across the bay," Foster said. "I have offered to personally escort Dr. Marbut to the mayor's office in Tampa. I have yet to hear back. Why? I can only surmise."

On Thursday afternoon, Buckhorn and Foster were seated at the same table at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but neither brought up the issue of homelessness.

Instead, Buckhorn learned about Foster's comments during the lunch via a Google alert and a St. Petersburg Times reporter's text message.

"I think we need to do more," Buckhorn said after the lunch. "Clearly, the work he's done over there is the right strategy, and I think he should be complimented for it."

But Buckhorn said Tampa is not as involved in providing social services as St. Petersburg. Instead, that is a responsibility that Tampa turned over to Hillsborough County 30 years ago, Buckhorn said.

"We're in a very different place," Buckhorn said, adding that he would work with county officials and the business community to explore a Hillsborough version of Safe Harbor.

Tampa doesn't expect St. Petersburg to take responsibility for dealing with its homeless people, Buckhorn said, now or during the Republican convention: "We aren't going to be diverting our homeless population to Pinellas County."

Also in Tampa on Thursday, an ad hoc group studying ways to address homelessness reported on its work to the City Council. The group looked at programs in San Antonio, Miami-Dade and Pinellas County.

An approach like Safe Harbor, which provides social services, mental and physical health care, literacy courses as well as housing, is less expensive than incarcerating or hospitalizing the homeless, said Dr. Jason Wilson, a task force member.

But Wilson said the effort needs help from the city to find a home and funding. In response, the council asked Buckhorn's administration to begin looking for a possible shelter site.

During Thursday's St. Petersburg City Council meeting, Foster lauded members for their support of the county shelter.

Most of Safe Harbor's $1.8 million annual budget comes from grants to the county and the Sheriff's Office, but St. Petersburg has pledged $100,000 and an officer to help operate it.

"You have exhibited the political will required that other jurisdictions refuse to address," Foster told the council. "Thank you for exhibiting the political will to do this."

It was the first time Foster has criticized Tampa's mayor since Buckhorn took office this spring. The critique was aimed squarely at Buckhorn, who often entertains speculation that he'd be happy to have the Tampa Bay Rays move to his city.

The swipe also illustrates how officials in one jurisdiction can easily blame another for a surge in homeless.

Ironically, last year, there were reports of an influx of panhandlers in Tampa after St. Petersburg cracked down on panhandling. In fact, Foster's comments came after council member Herb Polson noted how bad the situation was in Tampa.

"I've been astounded by the amount of panhandling there," Polson said. "And the boldness of those who do it … it's amazing."

There are about 5,000 homeless people in Pinellas County, said Rhonda Abbott, the city's manager of veteran, social and homeless services.

Outreach teams have noticed an uptick in people from Hillsborough, she said.

"We're full, we don't have room," she said. "And with the GOP convention coming, to our knowledge, Hillsborough isn't engaging on the issue. And they have twice as many homeless as Pinellas."

It's unclear, however, if the fears of a Tampa influx were based on more than a few cases.

In June, the homeless outreach teams in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs made contact with 191 people. Of those, one listed a Hillsborough address as their last previous residence.

In July, those same teams made contact with 188 people. Of those, five gave Hillsborough addresses. August numbers are not yet available.

"This is going to be better resolved together than demonizing other jurisdictions," Buckhorn said. "I don't subscribe any malice to (Foster). Actually, he should be commended for what he's done. I think it provides a model for other jurisdictions."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster to Tampa: Deal with your own homeless 09/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 9:48pm]

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