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Tensions brew over plans for homeless shelter at the Pinellas jail complex

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats says chronic law breakers will be the top priority for the facility.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats says chronic law breakers will be the top priority for the facility.

A month from its opening, a homeless shelter planned for the county jail complex has tensions brewing among public officials.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster thinks the shelter will allow the city to finally enforce its ordinance against sleeping on sidewalks and in parks. Homeless people can move to a warm, safe place for the night, he says. Or, if necessary, police can arrest them.

Public Defender Bob Dillinger said his office will defend anyone charged with sidewalk sleeping and charge the city $50 an hour for lawyer time.

The new shelter is designed to relieve jail overcrowding, he said, "it's not designed to move the homeless out of St. Pete."

County commissioners, who have hesitated to back the project over questions about its cost and focus, will weigh in Tuesday.

The shelter, which officials have discussed for months, was recently fast-tracked by Sheriff Jim Coats, primarily to relieve jail overcrowding.

Hundreds of homeless people cycle through the jail each year on minor charges like public intoxication, panhandling and trespassing. Each person costs the jail an average of $126 a day and occupies the State Attorney's Office, the public defender and court clerks.

Starting in early January, Coats plans to open a now-vacant jail annex to house people on cots. Instead of booking homeless people into the jail, law enforcement officers will have the option of bringing offenders directly to the annex, where social service agencies will provide substance abuse and mental health counseling, job training and literacy classes.

Charges will be suspended if people make some attempt to improve their lives — like seeking counseling or performing community service, Coats said. People will be free to come and go, but slackers could be arrested and charged.

The daily cost will be about $20 to $25 per person, he said.

"This is a golden opportunity," Coats told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Tuesday. "The facility is already in place, and already paid for. It's centrally located and requires very, very little in taxpayer money."

The shelter — dubbed Pinellas Safe Harbor — will open with 250 beds, Coats said, but could grow to 500 beds as demand and resources evolve. "This is a work in progress," he said.

Chronic law breakers will be the top priority, he said, but "as we get going, there's no question we should also be able to accommodate others in the homeless population," people who just need a place to spend the night.

That's what Foster is counting on. He has pledged $100,000 of city cash, plus a full-time police officer to help run the shelter. Federal courts have ruled that cities cannot arrest people for sidewalk sleeping unless shelter beds are an available option.

St. Petersburg, long a magnet for the homeless, rarely enforces its ordinance because the county's shelters are usually full. Foster said that will change with the opening of the annex.

"The facility is designed to afford people an opportunity to not sleep on a street corner. That's the bottom line," Foster said. "It's not the Taj Mahal, but it's better than a sidewalk under a streetlight."

Police will tell people to move along, or agree to go to the annex, Foster said. If they don't, police can arrest them.

It's difficult to estimate how many beds will be available for the general homeless population after chronic offenders are served. There might be 100 to 200 arrests a month, sheriff's officials estimate, but many are multiple offenders.

The annex also will offer temporary shelter and services for people emerging from prison or long jail stays. Many of those people live on the edge of homelessness.

A patchwork of grants and public contributions will finance the $1.8 million plan, Coats said. They include grants to ease ex-prisoners back into society, money to reduce repeat offenses, income from the jail commissary and federal reimbursement for jailing illegal immigrants.

The budget also includes $210,000 that the Pinellas County Commission has slated for jail utilities.

Some of these funding sources expire after a year, but "I am confident we can make this work next year, and beyond next year and beyond the year after that," Coats said. "Once this is demonstrated that this is working, we are going to garner a lot of support."

Even though Coats has money to open the shelter, county commissioners worry it could eventually become a drain on county coffers.

The differences over Coats' and Foster's priorities for it only added questions Tuesday.

What about cost overruns? What if funding falls through in future years?

Two commissioners, Ken Welch and Susan Latvala, supported the project when the Homeless Leadership Network voted for it Friday. But the focus was mostly on inmates.

"From an HLN perspective, we were supporting a jail diversion project, which did have a small component that could be used for other factors," Welch said.

Commissioner Karen Seel said she is concerned about the legality of using the shelter as part of St. Petersburg's effort to reduce the number of street homeless. Assistant County Attorney Carl Brody said the practice could be illegal, though a court would have to settle it.

Tensions brew over plans for homeless shelter at the Pinellas jail complex 12/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 10:54pm]

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