Eighteen months ago, it was unclear if opening another shelter in Pinellas County would solve the area's homeless problem.
Now leaders talk as if they don't know what they'd do without Safe Harbor, run by the Pinellas Sheriff's Office in a concrete building next to the county jail.
With about 400 people sleeping there each night, Safe Harbor now is Pinellas' largest homeless emergency shelter.
Officials credit it with reducing St. Petersburg's homeless population. They say it has filled the gap after a Clearwater shelter closed last year. And they believe that more than anything, it is helping connect people — who might otherwise be in jail — to much-needed social services and case managers.
But in a couple of months, federal grants that helped launch Safe Harbor will run out. And the question remains: Who will pay to keep it going?
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has requested that the county give him enough money to shoulder nearly all of Safe Harbor's costs for the next budget year beginning Oct. 1 — about $1.6 million.
He has already taken some heat for that.
At a recent budget session, County Commissioner Norm Roche said Safe Harbor has strayed from its original purpose as a jail diversion program. He said when he visited, half of the people there that day hadn't committed any crime but were "walk-ups."
"I believe it has morphed into something that it wasn't supposed to, at a considerably higher cost," Roche said. "I'm very clear in my belief that our sheriff's duty is public safety, not social services. I don't believe that that falls under the purview of the sheriff."
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Gualtieri and a host of other officials and homeless advocates insist Safe Harbor is actually saving the county money.
It costs about $13 a day to house someone at Safe Harbor, Gualtieri said. The daily cost at the jail is a little more than $100. In addition, he said, it would cost about $4.5 million to open two more wings to house those extra people who would otherwise be jailed.
So the county is actually saving $2.9 million, he said.
Still, Gualtieri said, he can't do it alone.
"This is a countywide problem. The entire burden of this shouldn't be on the Sheriff's Office," he said. "I would like to see all the cities contribute more."
Since it opened, several Pinellas cities have pitched in money. That ranges from $100,000 from St. Petersburg (the most of any municipality) to a little more than $600 from tiny North Redington Beach (the least).
But even all the municipal contributions combined only come to about $200,000.
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said the city's homeless consultant, Robert Marbut, already has recommended it double its Safe Harbor allocation to $100,000.
One of the reasons: Data has shown Safe Harbor is drawing more homeless from Clearwater than any other Pinellas region. St. Petersburg is a close second.
Clearwater's City Council has not formally approved Marbut's figure.
"I don't think there's any question that we feel some commitment to increase some of the funding," Horne said. "The issue is how much."
Besides the cities, however, homeless advocates say another group will be integral to Safe Harbor's success: the business community. Most facilities around the country similar to Safe Harbor operate with a mix of public and private money, officials said.
"As of now, there's no private funding," said Rhonda Abbott, who's in charge of homeless services for St. Petersburg. "That is one of our main targets — businesses."
Abbott said a special task force is dedicated to finding a permanent source of funding for Safe Harbor. The group is developing a business plan, she said, which will include ways to attract private funds and more grants.
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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who is not on the funding task force, said that just a couple of weeks ago, he gave officials from a major insurance company a personal tour of the shelter.
"I planted a seed," he said. "Do I know what will happen? No. ... The urgency is there. More needs to be done. I think it should be on the lips of every mayor in the county. I say it all the time when people ask me how they can help the city: mentor a child, adopt a school and let me take you to Safe Harbor."
Marbut, the homeless consultant who also was hired by the city of St. Petersburg a couple of years ago, has been floating his own idea for the past couple of weeks.
He thinks funding for Safe Harbor should be divided into fourths.
Under that scenario, Marbut said, municipalities, the Sheriff's Office, the county and the private sector each would kick in about $400,000 to run the shelter.
He said that amount might be easier for each entity to swallow, especially cities already struggling with tight budgets.
"It would be crazy to shut the place down right now," Marbut said. "All the benefits we've gotten would stop."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.