In recent years Clearwater has slashed its spending on social services for the poor and homeless, and it has rejected proposals for new shelters. Now that it has a serious homeless population on its streets, the only idea city leaders have is to get tough. But demanding that the criminal justice system solve a social welfare problem isn't going to work. There aren't enough shelter beds in the county to offer as an alternative to jail, and without that, arresting people for being homeless is likely unconstitutional. The city should rethink its shortsighted plan.
Clearwater is rushing through a series of proposed ordinances to clear its streets of homeless people in advance of the Republican National Convention. The new measures are expected to come up Thursday for a final vote. Yet even now the city's police department is training officers for their enforcement.
The new ordinances are among the most extreme that cities around the country have passed. They would ban sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the East Gateway neighborhood, the area known to have the most city social services. They would bar panhandling, bathing in public fountains and sleeping outdoors. People would be either taken to a shelter or to jail for violations and their possessions would be stored or, if deemed unclean or "of no apparent utility," destroyed. Already the city has welded shut public restrooms and cut off city water in parks frequented by homeless people.
Even as Clearwater looks to make life on the streets difficult, it has made help to end homelessness harder to find. Partly due to the lack of city funding, the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project closed last year. Then the city rejected a proposal by one social service organization to provide shelter for homeless families in the empty CHIP building.
The problem for Clearwater's leaders is that arresting someone for sleeping in public if they have nowhere to go opens the city to a constitutional challenge if there are no shelter beds available. There already isn't enough space at Safe Harbor, the homeless shelter next to the Pinellas County jail, and other area shelters. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says Safe Harbor is near or at capacity almost every night.
Clearwater's move to make it a crime to be homeless is by far the most expensive and least effective way to handle this social problem. It costs $106 per night for a Pinellas County jail cell and only $13 per night for a bed at Safe Harbor, where services help the homeless stabilize their lives. More places like Safe Harbor are needed and cities like Clearwater need to invest in them, but the city seems intent on going the punitive route and buying itself a lawsuit in the process.