A new midcounty homeless shelter proposed by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster could be a valuable addition to the programs for Pinellas' homeless population. But with the shelter scheduled to open by January, there are details to resolve about how it would be operated, funded and expanded to address the problems of the homeless.
The shelter idea has come together only in the last few weeks. It would be in a county-owned warehouse on 49th Street that once housed Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses and most recently was an annex to the Pinellas County Jail. About 500 homeless people could stay there, sleeping on mats inside or on the ground outside. Toilets, showers, meals, television and storage would be provided.
Unlike some other programs, the shelter would focus on two difficult subsets of the homeless population: the chronic street homeless who often have drug and alcohol addictions, and former prison inmates released with no means of support.
Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats wants to reduce overcrowding at the jail by diverting to the shelter people who would otherwise be arrested for city ordinance violations such as public urination and public intoxication. Coats also wants to house, in separate rooms, released state prison inmates who have nowhere else to go.
Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has a commendable interest in addressing the core problems that lead to homelessness, hopes the facility can provide detox services for alcoholics and drug addicts and then mental health treatment.
Foster wants to reduce the ranks of homeless people sleeping on St. Petersburg streets. The city can't arrest them for sleeping on public property unless an alternative is available. The shelter could be that alternative.
But would the homeless use it? While the shelter would have no fences and residents could come and go, it would be operated by law enforcement officers, patrolled by a private security firm, and have rules and a curfew. That might scare off those who have chosen street life, but they would be safer in the shelter than on the street.
Organizers haven't nailed down a complete budget or the types of services the shelter will offer. There is no long-term financing plan and not much more than guesswork about costs. And though organizers talk excitedly about all the ways the shelter could help the homeless — detox, literacy and GED classes, veterans services, mental health counseling, job assistance — it isn't clear who would provide those services or how the shelter would pay for them.
These are issues that will have to be resolved to ensure that the shelter is the first stop on a continuum of alternatives, not a dead-end warehouse for the homeless. But the cooperation among local officials exploring creative solutions to a regional problem is impressive, and this is an encouraging option with real potential.