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St. Petersburg police give homeless offenders the choice of shelter or jail

ST. PETERSBURG — Four homeless people accused of minor crimes Monday were given an option for the first time of where to go: the county jail or the county homeless shelter.

All four chose Pinellas Safe Harbor.

"It's a pretty good deal," said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's homeless services director.

The four people were arrested on open-container violations. Six others were arrested on city ordinance violations but were not taken to the jail or shelter because they had addresses. They were given notices to appear in court.

Abbott said homeless people at the shelter will have the opportunity to work with case managers to transform their lives. Cases could be dismissed if they meet obligations, such as community service and counseling.

St. Petersburg is the only city offering the program in Pinellas County, but other cities are expected to begin offering the option shortly.

"We thought this would be a good trial period for this program," Abbott said.

Police bring about 10 people to the shelter every day.

The program had been planned to start soon after the shelter's January opening but was delayed as officials worked to secure grants. Late last week, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office officials learned that a $500,000 federal grant to pay for the diversion program had been approved.

A team of police officers in downtown St. Petersburg now offer the option to homeless people accused of crimes like drunkenness and trespassing. If they accept, they are given a notice to appear in court but not booked into the jail.

The intent is to shift homeless people to the homeless shelter instead of the jail, where costs are higher.

St. Petersburg police give homeless offenders the choice of shelter or jail 04/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 10:43am]
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