Saturday, November 25, 2017
Opinion

John Romano: The homeless may not be as visible in Pinellas County, but they are still there

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For the most part, we have solved the panhandling issue in Pinellas County.

There do not appear to be as many lost souls drinking out of paper bags, and our parks are no longer filled with the destitute sleeping on benches.

All of this is undoubtedly good.

And yet none of it means our homeless problem is solved.

What has happened in recent years is that city leaders in St. Petersburg and Clearwater have tried to clean up their sidewalks and doorsteps by asking law enforcement officials to crack down on vagrancy-related offenses.

This makes it look as if the homeless problem has been eradicated — which makes voters and business owners happy — but the reality is not nearly as cut-and-dried.

There are still homeless in Pinellas County. As many as 6,000 on a given day, according to the most recent estimates. And the great majority are not the disheveled vagrant stereotype, but out-of-work parents, children and those transitioning out of foster care.

It's true, some are chronic cases and will never be fully integrated back into society. This category would include your substance abusers and the mentally ill.

But thousands are simply victims of circumstance. Young parents who have lost a job and have no one to turn to. Or families who are displaced when a trailer park is razed or an apartment is turned into condos, and they have no money to move elsewhere.

If you haven't noticed these unfortunates lately, it's a credit to organizations such as the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, Pinellas Hope run by Catholic Charities and Safe Harbor, which Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped create.

So what's the problem?

There are far more homeless than organizations such as these can handle. And the funds for these projects are forever running dry.

"We have entire families sleeping in cars in department store parking lots, or taking shelter in abandoned buildings,'' said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Homeless Leadership Board. "We're in better shape than we used to be, but we still need funds.''

The county contributes a large chunk of the funds needed. Gualtieri is currently paying for the entire $1.6 million cost of Safe Harbor out of his own budget. St. Petersburg has stepped up with sizable funding help, and other municipalities have contributed as well.

Where funding is coming up short is private donations and the business community.

Look, this doesn't even have to be an appeal to the heart. If you like, take compassion out of the picture. Look at it as coldhearted and objectively as you wish.

What you will realize is the homeless problem is going to become far more noticeable if these organizations continue to run low on funds. And when that happens, the problem starts to compound. Jails are far more expensive to run than shelters. And people with arrests on their records have more trouble finding employment and housing.

"Either we pay for this up front, or we're going to be paying a lot more down the road,'' said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is chairman of the Homeless Leadership Board. "We've had a lot of cooperation and I'm proud of the progress we've made, but if we want to keep people off the street we need to put some money up.''

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