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Largo police say incidents near Pinellas Safe Harbor have almost doubled in a year

LARGO — On Jan. 13, police responded to a call about a bottle of vodka stolen from an East Bay Drive Publix. Police identified two suspects who said they came from Fort Lauderdale to stay at Pinellas Safe Harbor, a mid-county homeless shelter.

On March 20, police were called to investigate a robbery on U.S. 19. A man walking home from work said two men, later identified as shelter residents, grabbed his shirt and rifled through his pockets.

On June 18, police responded to a coin laundry 2 miles from the shelter, where a drunken, pants-less man was passed out in the bathroom.

These are three of 942 homeless-related calls the Largo Police Department has responded to in the first six months of 2011, up from 483 during the same period last year. Homeless-related reports during the same time period nearly tripled, according to a report from Largo Police Chief John Carroll.

Calls indicate the number of times officers are deployed; reports are written when there are allegations of a crime.

While Carroll acknowledges that Safe Harbor has not caused every homeless-related call or report, he thinks the new shelter is a major contributor.

So does Largo City Commissioner Curtis Holmes.

"This is warehousing," Holmes said. "(Safe Harbor residents) can check their weapons, alcohol and drugs at the door, go in and be as drunk as you can be, then get a shower, a fresh meal and leave the next morning to start over again. To me, that's insanity."

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats opened Safe Harbor in January on 49th Street, just east of Largo city limits. They hoped to ease jail crowding and the concentration of homeless in downtown St. Petersburg.

Foster asked Largo in December for $25,000 to $50,000 to help pay for the shelter, assuring commissioners it would reduce costs in medical and police calls.

Holmes and his commission colleagues balked, though, and the statistics released Monday seem to show the shelter will actually increase those costs.

Largo Fire Rescue's medical calls to the area have increased more than tenfold this year, said Fire Chief Mike Wallace.

Foster responded by saying he would not make any further pitches to Largo for money: "If their contribution remains in-kind due to impacts on police, then I think we all would see that as a good contribution to a countywide problem."

Largo Mayor Pat Gerard was pleasantly surprised to hear of Foster's promise. "How diplomatic of him," she said.

Gerard, chief operating officer for the social services agency Family Resources, said she'd rather send homeless people to Safe Harbor than throw them in jail, but she stopped short of calling the shelter a solution.

"I have real concerns about the program," she said. "Putting 400 or 500 drunk people under one roof ... I think we're lucky nobody's gotten hurt out there."

Carroll, the police chief, said most of his "Problem Oriented Policing Team" — four officers and a sergeant — has focused on preventing homeless camps from cropping up and responding to shelter complaints instead of working crime trends.

Carroll did acknowledge it was a pre-emptive decision to redirect those officers, and that the heightened focus has contributed to higher calls.

He also said that most of the problems — activity like aggressive panhandling and public intoxication — is the fault of "a few chronics."

Fire Chief Wallace says calls in the High Point area are spiking so much that the county may need to pay his agency more for emergency medical services. Largo Fire Rescue responded to 228 medical calls at the shelter in the first half of 2011, Wallace said, compared with 21 in those same months in 2010. (The address didn't exist in 2010.)

Gerard, Wallace and Holmes will attend a community forum about Safe Harbor at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Bayside High School, 14405 49th St. N. Pinellas Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri will speak and take questions.

Foster asked for patience.

"This shelter is only 6 months old, so there are a lot of things that need to be tweaked," he said, "including meeting the impacted needs of the city of Largo."

Largo police say incidents near Pinellas Safe Harbor have almost doubled in a year 07/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 11, 2011 10:54pm]
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