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St. Petersburg's homeless population dropping downtown, but other problems remain, says consultant

ST. PETERSBURG — The number of homeless on the City Hall block at night has dropped by nearly half since October. Safe Harbor, a new shelter started in January, is now the largest in Pinellas County.

That's the good news.

Families with children face a critical shortage of care, with shelters turning away between 10 to 20 a day, and some shelters are splitting up families because they won't let teen boys or fathers stay there out of security concerns, according to a report given to the City Council on Thursday.

One of the largest shelters in the county, Pinellas Hope, floods too easily and needs major renovations. The recent closing of a Clearwater shelter will have a worrisome ripple effect, causing other shelters to fill up faster.

This snapshot of one of the most intractable problems the city has faced in the last few years was taken by Robert Marbut, a consultant the council hired to help nearly eight months ago.

He was to help come up with plan to unify countywide services, which he says are too disjointed and inefficient now.

"For this to work, it really needs to be a countywide solution," Marbut said. "It has to be an integrated approach with all the cities and the different county agencies and the United Way working together."

Marbut recommended a series of remedies that include:

• Having a CEO manage a countywide homeless care system that consolidates all homeless services, whether they are provided by nonprofits, individuals, churches or government agencies.

• Increasing the size of Safe Harbor by at least 200 spaces, for an overall capacity of about 550.

• Operating two shuttles that will connect homeless people with services. One shuttle will take chronic homeless, those who are deemed to have little hope of returning to the job market and self-sufficiency, and another shuttle to take nonchronic families and individuals. Marbut said the shuttles should run on weekdays between 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. and Saturday mornings.

• Creating a voucher program for families with children so they can be placed in shelters sooner.

• Improving another large shelter in the county, Pinellas Hope, which is now considered a step below Safe Harbor, Marbut said. It would require draining water away from sleeping areas, placing tents on platforms so they don't flood, and adding two to five case managers.

City Council member Leslie Curran met Marbut while in San Antonio during a 2009 conference. Marbut at the time was CEO of Haven for Hope, a 37-acre complex in San Antonio. Curran was so impressed she returned for another tour and later recommended that Marbut come to St. Petersburg and explain his elaborate awards system designed to modify behavior.

The homeless in his San Antonio shelter who misbehaved remained outside to sleep on mats and eat cold meals. If they showed initiative, they moved into dorms, ate hot meals and took classes to learn job skills. Those who improved even more received permanent housing and dental and eye care.

That approach won admirers in St. Petersburg, and Mayor Bill Foster agreed to hire the 51-year-old Texan to advise the city on how to best consolidate and target resources to assist the homeless.

To draft a master plan for St. Petersburg, Marbut is paid $5,300 a month through a contract that expires in June.

He could get that done in time, but he won't have to. The council on Thursday voted to extend his contract. Mayor Bill Foster agreed and said he would talk with Marbut and work out the terms.

Along with Marbut's renewal, Foster said the city in June will start enforcing an ordinance that bans sleeping and reclining on public streets, sidewalks and park land. In addition, he said he will soon be asking council to consider passing another ordinance that restricts the feeding of homeless people in the downtown.

But council members seemed most excited about keeping Marbut for another year.

"It's really working," Jeff Danner told Marbut during the meeting. "The fact that you're from out of town is really helping. I've been on the homeless board for years, but having someone else say that this isn't a St. Petersburg problem really goes a long way."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg's homeless population dropping downtown, but other problems remain, says consultant 05/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 12:09am]

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