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St. Petersburg's efforts on homelessness pay off, poll finds

St. Petersburg and Tampa both have problems with the homeless, but St. Petersburg has worked on the issue longer, and residents say it shows.

A majority of St. Petersburg residents — 55 percent — said they saw fewer homeless in 2011 than in the previous year, according to a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.

In contrast, a plurality of Hills­borough respondents — 39 percent — say they saw more homeless on Tampa's streets compared to last year.

For St. Petersburg residents like Matthew McNulty, the trend is clear.

"In and around downtown I've seen a noticeable improvement," said McNulty, 40, who lives near Shore Acres. "You just don't see the people sleeping on the sidewalk and panhandling like you did. You don't see people asking for money at the exit ramps of the interstate. It's pretty obvious."

But the change didn't happen immediately.

In June 2010, the City Council banned solicitations on St. Petersburg's busiest streets.

After the ban took effect, the city's population of street-corner panhandlers dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, Tampa residents said their medians suddenly got more crowded.

Still, the number of downtown St. Petersburg vagrants at Williams Park and around City Hall seemed to grow.

So the next step came in January 2011, when Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council helped open a shelter called Pinellas Safe Harbor next to the county jail.

With about 500 beds, Safe Harbor allowed St. Petersburg to enforce ordinances aimed at behaviors associated with homelessness, such as urinating in public, carrying open containers of alcohol and sleeping on sidewalks.

Week by week, the homeless population dropped. On Jan. 6, police counted 120. By June 29, it was 79. By November, it had fallen to 21.

Even occasional visitors notice the change.

"I'm not down in that area too much, but I do think the homeless aren't as visible," said Brenda DePaul, a 51-year-old Old Northeast resident. "Does it help our city when it's not as visible? Yes, sad but true. It's hard on businesses to have a perceived homeless problem because it does turn people away."

The St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 conducted two polls Dec. 3-8, one of 303 St. Petersburg adults and one of 304 Tampa-area adults. The margin of error for both polls is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

The St. Petersburg poll suggests reducing the number of vagrants hasn't helped Foster politically.

In 2010, with the problem growing, 51 percent of residents said they were satisfied with how Foster handled the issue.

This year, with the visible homeless population shrinking, 48 percent said they were satisfied with Foster's handling of the issue. Those who said they weren't too satisfied with how he's handled the issue rose six points, to 39 percent.

"I'm kind of scratching my head over that," Foster said.

The unexpected swing may be partly explained by the complicated — and sometimes conflicting — views residents had on the subject.

"I'm pleased with the outcome," said McNulty, who likes downtown more now. "But I have to be careful. Is it right or fair to displace someone just for my pleasure, or my desire not to encounter these folks?"

Moving the homeless to Safe Harbor is more humane than letting them sleep on the street, city officials say. The shelter also offers services to help them find jobs, housing or counseling.

Opening a shelter for women and children has become one of Foster's top goals for 2012. He said the city is also bracing for an uptick in the number of veterans returning from overseas who will struggle to assimilate back into society. Such an added demand will further strain Safe Harbor, which costs $1.8 million to operate each year and needs a more permanent funding source.

"Creating Safe Harbor was the easy part," Foster said. "The hard part is keeping it open."

In Tampa, city officials struggled this year to get to where St. Petersburg was in mid 2010.

In October, after a half-dozen tries, the Tampa City Council passed its own six-day panhandling ban.

But it's not as straightforward as St. Petersburg's ordinance: Street-corner newspaper sales are allowed every day. Panhandling and charitable drives are okay on Sundays. But no one can work the medians at the city's 10 most crash-prone intersections any day.

It was a compromise, but it seemed to make a dent in the problem.

"It's definitely having an effect," said Susan Funk, 58, of Temple Terrace. "There's not quite as many people on intersections as there were."

Still, residents have mixed feelings about Tampa's ban, according to the poll.

Only 37 percent approve of it as is. Another 22 percent wish it were stronger, while 23 percent disapprove of it. And 13 percent approve, but wish the ban had more exceptions.

Residents likewise are ambivalent about Mayor Bob Buckhorn's performance on the issue.

Forty-seven percent say they are somewhat or very satisfied with his efforts, while 40 percent say they are "not too satisfied."

Buckhorn also caught some flak from Foster, who said Tampa should not count on sending its homeless west, especially during next year's Republican National Convention.

We won't, Buckhorn promises.

In September, the Tampa council embraced the idea of creating a shelter modeled on Safe Harbor, which is run by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and gets support from St. Petersburg, smaller Pinellas cities, county government and nonprofit groups.

Some Hillsborough residents, however, are leery of spending more public funds on homeless programs.

"We need to do something to help," said New Tampa retiree Jerry Kautz, 69. But he adds, "I don't feel we should be taxed to do that."

Tampa doesn't have the money in any case, Buckhorn says. He agrees it makes sense to divert the homeless away from jail and into programs aimed at stabilizing their lives, but he notes that providing social services is a responsibility that Tampa turned over to the county 30 years ago.

That's why the private sector must play a role in any solution, Buckhorn says. In September, he met with two top county officials and Tod Leiweke, chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to discuss ideas. In Seattle, where Leiweke was CEO of the Seattle Seahawks, he chaired a 2008-09 United Way campaign that raised more than $100 million to help fight family homelessness.

Buckhorn also has told his staff to determine if the city owns property that could be used for a homeless services facility.

Helping somehow is something the community can and should do, said retired secretary Pauline Norris of Tampa.

"We're a rich country," said Norris, 62. She said the homeless should be able to turn to shelters and get job training. She has given money to panhandlers, but "there's only so many dollars you can give."

"It's never-ending," she said. "That was the problem: you couldn't give to everyone on every corner. There were just so many."

By the numbers

20% of those polled are very satisfied with St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's handling of the issue.

14% of those polled are very satisfied with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's handling of the homeless.

More results, 12A

St. Petersburg's efforts on homelessness pay off, poll finds 12/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2011 5:00am]

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