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New Safe Harbor shelter keeps Largo fire, police units busy; Sheriff's Office vows to work with city

Public safety leaders say they're facing new challenges since the Safe Harbor homeless shelter opened early this year in mid Pinellas.

For Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace, the impact of the shelter has been significant. His department has responded to at least 79 medical calls at the shelter since Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats opened it in January.

"It did come as a strain on my current resources," Wallace said. "Guys at Station 40 at High Point, up until now, have not had this call volume or pressure."

The effect on the Largo Police Department is evident but less dramatic. Chief John Carroll said he agrees with the shelter's goals, such as relieving overcrowding at the jail. But he has had to shift some officers to deal with more homeless people in the area and complaints about their behavior.

"It's a great concept," Carroll said. "If I were the chief in Tarpon Springs, I would like it more than I do as the chief in Largo."

Sheriff's Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri, who was instrumental in planning the shelter, said he takes those concerns seriously. But he thinks many of the problems are linked to the fact that the shelter is in its infancy.

"Our intent is certainly not to burden Largo," Gualtieri said. "The whole goal here is to solve a problem."

The shelter was designed as a cost-effective way to house homeless offenders whose crimes are minor and nonviolent. It opened on Jan. 6 with about 25 people and now is home to about 300. Residents can come and go during the day.

Wallace said Safe Harbor residents, not staffers, made most of the emergency calls to the fire department. The calls were for health issues such as allergic reactions, eye problems, overdoses, seizures, chest pains, breathing problems and unconsciousness. He thinks calls may soar so much he'll have to request an additional rescue unit at Station 40 by late summer.

But Gualtieri said he thinks the calls, especially minor ones, will decrease over time.

He said that among the many reasons for the volume of calls is that the facility has no medical care on site. But, he said, the shelter recently got approval for the county's medical van to visit twice a week. And the shelter may soon receive funding to provide a nurse or other health care practitioner there.

He also expects some problems to be resolved after the shelter gets grant money to help cover costs for more counselors and case managers.

As far as the Police Department goes, Gualtieri said he wasn't aware there was a problem. The Sheriff's Office handles law enforcement at the facility, which is near the county jail on 49th Street. And deputies have been directed to deal with homeless incidents on the 49th Street corridor, he said.

But Largo police Lt. Edward Sohoski said officers have been dealing with a new group of homeless people since the shelter opened.

"Our contacts with homeless people or vagrants have absolutely increased," Sohoski said. "We're having much more contact with people from other parts of the county and outside of the county."

The department hasn't been able to quantify the impact, partly because some of the homeless people it deals with are logged as transients and not by specific address, he said.

But at the St. Petersburg Times' request, he provided details about more than 10 incidents involving Safe Harbor residents.

Calls included reports of loitering, harassing customers for money and passing out in front of businesses. Most were related to alcohol. And several involved people who left the shelter to drink.

Safe Harbor residents aren't allowed to drink at the shelter, but they are not turned away if they arrive drunk.

One of the police calls, just a week after the shelter opened, began as a possible theft at a Publix on East Bay Drive. No one was arrested, but officers interviewed two people who said they came to Pinellas from Fort Lauderdale to stay at Safe Harbor. They spent the night at the shelter and left during the afternoon to drink.

Chief Carroll said he wants to be a team player and doesn't want to pit himself against the Sheriff's Office or St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, a major supporter of Safe Harbor. But he can't deny the reality.

"As a police chief, I have to respond to the business people and residents who say we weren't having this problem before and we're having it now," Carroll said.

Gualtieri admitted that heavy drinking off-site has created problems at Safe Harbor and elsewhere. He said the shelter is working on a program to encourage better behavior.

He also pledged to work with the city to resolve any lingering issues.

"There's no intention of taking the problems out of one area and moving them to another," Gualtieri said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

New Safe Harbor shelter keeps Largo fire, police units busy; Sheriff's Office vows to work with city 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 3:31am]
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