Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats intends to open a homeless shelter near the jail next month — with or without the County Commission's approval.
Commissioners have started to question the financing of the shelter proposed at a closed jail annex on 49th Street. They are hesitant to approve the shelter without promises that funding is guaranteed for more than just one year.
Despite the questions, the county's Homeless Leadership Network board voted unanimously Friday to move the project forward. Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri said the Sheriff's Office already has enough money budgeted to start it Jan. 1.
"We certainly want the County Commission's approval of this. Do we feel that it needs formal approval? No," Gualtieri said.
Less than an hour later, Commissioner Susan Latvala reassured people on a tour of the building that the board hadn't approved the project and was a "long way from formalizing this."
The tour included members of the Homeless Leadership Network, concerned residents and public officials.
While looking at a large room where homeless people would stay, a resident accused Coats of rushing to start the shelter with little public input.
Coats acknowledged that he put the shelter "on a fast track," but only because the problem is so great. There's no other location that is as affordable or that addresses the problem so quickly, he said.
Tampa Bay area counties have struggled with how to handle a rise in homelessness. The number of welfare recipients who identify themselves as homeless has nearly doubled to 24,000 in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. That number includes 10,000 people in Pinellas.
Combine the increased homelessness with police tactics, and taxpayers are footing some of the bill via the jail.
As St. Petersburg and other cities confront homeless people, police often issue trespass or other citations that land them in an already crowded jail at a cost of $126 a day, each.
The new shelter will save money, the sheriff said, by accepting homeless people accused of misdemeanor and ordinance violations, such as public intoxication.
It would have 250 beds and basic services to start, but an ultimate capacity of 500 — and be capable of housing anyone who needs shelter. While there would be a curfew, no one would be forced to stay.
Recently released inmates, drunks and convicts including sex offenders would be kept in a separate wing from other homeless people, and patrol deputies would work the neighborhood mindful of the shelter crowd.
It would be meant for people who can't get into other shelters, such as Pinellas Hope, the tent city that won't shelter people on drugs or alcohol or with violent pasts.
But the new shelter's scope has shrunk as scrutiny has grown.
A "courtyard" where any homeless person could sleep outside, use showers and get meals has been abandoned for now because there isn't enough money.
The $1.8 million budget relies on $1.1 million in grants related to chronic criminal offenders. That money cannot be spent on people outside the justice system, and $874,000 is only guaranteed for a year.
Commissioners are set to discuss the shelter at their Dec. 14 meeting.
The county administrator is hesitant to approve the shelter unless there are multiyear agreements with cities to fund the project, Assistant County Administrator Carl Harness said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said the county's approval is crucial.
"I wouldn't even try to do it without the county's assistance," said Foster, a primary advocate for the shelter. "If they say 'no,' we're back to the drawing board. It would be unfortunate."
The budget relies on $740,000 from local governments, including roughly $150,000 from St. Petersburg. Other cities, such as Clearwater, will be asked to pay.
The Sheriff's Office plans to use revenue from jailing federal immigration defendants and from inmate commissary spending to offset the costs, as well as $210,000 the county already budgeted for utilities.
Some residents and homeless people are skeptical of the budget, and the operation of the shelter in a police facility.
"I think that's a fairy tale," said neighbor Jim Byers, a former police officer. "When you have a building that size, there's no way you can do it."
Sheriff's officials say they can pull it off with help from charities, who could help provide food much like the way they do at Pinellas Hope.
But that comparison is what bothers some commissioners.
Stuck in their minds is the budget for Pinellas Hope, which started as a one-time commitment. The county now contributes $500,000 a year, prompting debates annually.
"Just look at Pinellas Hope, you're not going to shut it down. The county's going to come up with that money," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a network member who supports the proposal.
Some homeless people at Friday's meeting also questioned how many would actually use the shelter. The place is cramped, and has no racks for bicycles — key means of transportation, said Harry Hoffman, 28.
"To be honest, I'd rather take my chances at the jail," Hoffman said.
But sheriff's Deputy Tim Myers and St. Petersburg Officer Richard Linkiewicz, who help homeless people get into shelters, said they have dozens waiting. Linkiewicz estimated 100 chronic offenders would qualify today. There's no time to wait on multiyear deals, Gualtieri said.
"The building will fall down before that ever happens," said Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "We need to get this up and running."
Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.