CLEARWATER — Having lived on the streets since 2014, when he said God ordered him to go out and watch over the homeless, Scott Elfstrom has seen new faces brought out by the typical drugs, despair or plain bad luck.
But a fresh wave of homeless has emerged downtown in recent months, unique from what he's seen before. Driven in part by a crackdown in St. Petersburg's Williams Park and Clearwater's Crest Lake Park, officials say transients are increasingly migrating to Clearwater's comfortable waterfront, bringing with them a drug that has challenged law enforcement agencies across Tampa Bay for years: spice.
"Everybody flooded here, and now all these people are getting arrested for spice, but they're all going to get out and come right back here and get high all over again," said Elfstrom, 50. "There's a bigger problem."
The uptick over the past six months of homeless downtown has been noticeable, with people sleeping in the foyers of buildings, lounging in Station Square Park and at the patio tables of restaurants, and lining up for near-daily meals at Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church. It also overlaps with the launch of the city's aggressive $55 million waterfront revitalization, Imagine Clearwater.
And the Church of Scientology's directive in May for its Sea Org staff to avoid downtown while in uniform took away a dominant presence on the streets, making the homeless even more conspicuous amid minimal foot traffic from shoppers.
This week, a consultant began what will be a two-month analysis of the city's homeless community to suggest ways to help those in need and improve the climate. Dr. Robert Marbut, whom the city will pay $18,603, spent his first two days undercover as a homeless person, sleeping outside and getting to know the issues firsthand.
"There are things said on the street that are not said to public agencies," Marbut said in an interview.
Clearwater originally hired Marbut in 2012, and his recommendations resulted in the formation of the city's homeless committee, ongoing financial support of social service organizations, better coordination between the city staff and the Police Department, and more training for staffers who encounter the homeless, said community development manager Gabe Parra.
Parra said new strategies are needed now with the complications of spice and the "balloon effect" from the removal of homeless people from Crest Lake Park, Williams Park and surrounding hot spots.
"We are cognizant there is an increase in the homeless; we know people come from Pasco, from Hillsborough County," Parra said. "They come here because we have good services here, a beautiful beach, facilities where they can use the bathroom. We are continuing to address it."
Marbut said he could not speculate on what new strategies the city may need until his analysis is complete. But while homelessness is an element of many communities, he said the solutions vary on location and need updating over time.
"The population changes so sometimes recommendations made X years ago won't work anymore," Marbut said. "Sometimes you've done all the channel-changing you can, but now you have to fine-tune it."
The homeless population can be difficult to track, with untold families living in cars, friends' couches and paying week-to-week in cheap motels. But Pinellas County's most recent 2016 Point-in-Time Count reported 2,777 homeless people in 2,518 households.
Clearwater police Sgt. Rodney Johnson said the downtown patrol officers have had to address increased issues of trespassing and loitering since the city cracked down on the homeless in Crest Lake Park and the east gateway area this year.
Between January and May, police ran 246 spice investigations and made 459 arrests of homeless individuals on various offenses.
Those trespassing on businesses by sleeping or loitering on private property are given one warning, have their information recorded into a database and can be arrested for subsequent offenses. Because there is no field test for spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, the department had been sending samples to a lab for testing before arresting a suspected user, which can take more than a month.
But after a growing number of people began using the drug on public streets, often in broad daylight, Johnson said the department got the blessing of Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on June 16 for six downtown officers to begin making arrests on the spot using their training and judgment.
"They take it, walk around like zombies, they pass out, they have medical issues, they go into seizures, and it's really difficult for people to walk by and see that," Johnson said of the drug, which has herbal material sprayed with chemicals that can be 100 times more potent than pot and cause erratic behavior. "This is definitely not a traditional homeless problem. It's something completely different."
Rev. Bob Scott of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church said he and his congregation also have observed a shift in the homeless people who attend the church's free dinners on Thursday nights.
"What we've seen is a different group," Scott said. "They just seem to be younger and kind of rougher. It's a lot of new faces."
Although attendance varies, his congregation has been feeding about 150 people a week, up from the more typical 100 average.
Phylicia Montgomery, 31, who has been homeless on and off since she was 14, said she thinks more job and rehabilitation resources could help many stay off the streets.
Since the spike in the homeless population downtown began, Montgomery said she spends most nights trying to find a place to sleep where she won't be run out by sirens or flashlights from stepped-up police patrols.
Last week, after having 17 seizures in one day from spice withdrawal, she said "enough." Montgomery said she planned on checking into rehab to kick the habit for good.
Her goal is to return to the streets, but this time clean. And as an advocate to help others.
"We don't wake up in the morning and say 'I want to be an addict, I don't want to be a normal person,'" Montgomery said. "We made mistakes, but don't punish us for these mistakes just because they're not yours."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.