St. Petersburg police will soon start offering homeless people accused of minor crimes the option of going to the county's homeless shelter instead of jail.
Sheriff's officials learned Friday that a $500,000 federal grant to pay for the diversion program had been approved.
The intent is to shift homeless people accused of crimes like drunkenness and trespass to Pinellas Safe Harbor instead of the jail, where costs are higher.
Starting Monday or Tuesday, St. Petersburg police will be able to bring 10 people shelter, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Robert Gualtieri. The program would eventually expand to other cities like Clearwater.
"We're going to do it very carefully and very thoughtfully and try it on for size," said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's homeless services director.
The program had been planned to started soon after the shelter's January opening, but was delayed as officials worked to secure grant funding.
A team of police officers in downtown St. Petersburg will offer the option to homeless people they find committing minor crimes. If they accept, they would be given a notice to appear in court but not booked into the jail.
The shelter would provide case managers to help improve their lives, and their cases would be dismissed if they meet obligations like community service and counseling.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster told Gualtieri that, for now, the city won't enforce its ban on sidewalk sleeping, Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri said the decision wasn't urged by the Sheriff's Office, which has recoiled at cities sending homeless, minor offenders to the jail repeatedly. "That's a policy decision for the city," he said.
Foster did not return calls seeking comment. Abbott confirmed Gualtieri's account.
St. Petersburg's ban on public sleeping has been derided by some advocates for the homeless and challenged by public defenders. Courts have ruled that the city can enforce its law only if enough shelter beds are available.
"Eventually we do believe we will have capacity," Abbott said.
The new shelter funding comes as a major homeless shelter announces its plans to close May 15. The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project said its 85 residents will have to find shelter elsewhere because of funding cuts.
Safe Harbor, which has a typical population of 300 or more, has room for 500. Its expansion will be added by a shipment of 100 bunks the sheriff ordered from an Alabama jail. The office paid $20 apiece for the used bunks, which inmates will repaint.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.