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Safe Harbor neighbors accuse St. Petersburg mayor of shipping downtown's homeless problem to their community

LARGO — Neighbors of the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter say they know why St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster can't find as many homeless people downtown anymore.

They're showing up in the yards of people who live near the shelter, frustrated residents said.

At a public forum Thursday night, residents blasted Foster and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for opening the shelter off 49th Street, just outside Largo city limits.

They complained of men urinating behind fences or benches. They said people pass out in yards and even knock on doors, asking for cash.

"It's not in Bill Foster's neighborhood, and I wish he was here tonight," said resident Robert Blake shortly into the meeting.

Foster arrived for the last half of the 90-minute session but didn't address residents. Afterward, he said he was confident solutions would be found, acknowledging neighbors' "great deal of passion." But he also said he's learned some homeless people have moved out of Pinellas entirely, though he wouldn't say where.

"It's a countywide challenge, and it requires a countywide solution," said Foster as the crowd of 80 departed Bayside High School.

The shelter opened six months ago as an effort to reduce the number of chronically homeless people — especially from St. Petersburg — being jailed for minor offenses such as open container violations. Now they can receive a shelter bed and a chance at a diversion program.

The shelter has 370 beds, plus an outdoor courtyard for 100 that opened Tuesday. On average, 335 people stay at the shelter.

With the extra space, St. Petersburg began a sweep to reduce the number of homeless people violating the city ordinance downtown on Wednesday — but found few.

Largo police this week reported 982 homeless-related calls during the first six months of the year, up from 483 for the same period last year.

A Sheriff's Office report released late Thursday also showed complaints increased 30 percent around Safe Harbor in the first six months of the year. There were 1,272 calls in the first half of 2010 to 1,660 this year.

However, authorities have compared the names of homeless people interviewed in St. Petersburg with the names of homeless people encountered near the shelter, and have found few matches, said Sheriff's Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. Many of the downtown homeless instead have moved to camps in Pasco County, Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

In fact, some residents of nearby High Point said before the meeting they found little to complain about from Safe Harbor residents.

"I haven't seen anything from the people of Safe Harbor," said resident Brenda Havel, 49, who initially fretted about the effects on her mom, who lives with her.

But during the meeting, Gualtieri acknowledged homeless people — whether from St. Petersburg or not — have increased in the neighborhoods near Safe Harbor.

The sheriff's office has applied for a federal grant to pay for five community policing deputies for High Point. Patrols increased in January.

"Have you been impacted in the High Point area by Pinellas Safe Harbor? Yes," Gualtieri said.

"Majorly," an audience member shouted back.

But Gualtieri also noted residents need to contact police about trouble — many acknowledged they hadn't. He complained authorities are challenged by some businesses trying to tap new customers, such as by advertising alcohol.

Sean LeMaitre, service manager of Bandit Fitness Equipment, south of the shelter, said he's been inundated with loiterers and panhandlers outside his business. Recently, five people were caught by police — and he saw three of them with locker keys for Safe Harbor.

"Largo might as well open a police substation down at our business, they're down there so much," LeMaitre said.

"It's not everybody" who uses the shelter, he added later. "But the point is, when it costs businesses … something's got to be done."

Safe Harbor resident Garry Townsend, 48, urged people at the meeting not to feel intimidated by panhandlers.

"Don't give them cash — tell them to get a job," he said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter with @DeCampTimes.

Safe Harbor neighbors accuse St. Petersburg mayor of shipping downtown's homeless problem to their community 07/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 12:24am]
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