Of all the numbers in Pasco County's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, one under-the-radar sum is significant for its attempt to get disenfranchised people off the street and back to work. Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger wants $125,000 from the county to try to keep drunken homeless people out of jail.
It's a modest amount to duplicate a program that has been successful in Pinellas County. Pasco's budget writers were correct to include Dillinger's request in the proposed $1.2 billion spending plan and commissioners should ensure it remains there during the summer-long budget deliberations that are likely to focus on public safety and transportation costs.
Essentially, Dillinger hopes to turn the drunk and disorderly into sober and employable by diverting inebriated homeless people from the county jail into a treatment center and temporary housing while also providing case management to try to obtain benefits or job training to which they may be entitled.
"We can't arrest our way out of homelessness," Dillinger told county commissioners last month. Indeed. This approach is much more prudent than an earlier county proposal to arrest repeat offenders of the county's panhandling ban — likely some of the same people who could become clients of Dillinger's diversion program.
The target audience is expected to be the portion of west Pasco's homeless population who are chronically inebriated. A 2013 count reported 3,305 people were homeless on any given day in Pasco County, including 815 people — a nearly one-third increase over four years earlier — considered to be chronically homeless because they've been on the street for at least a year or have been homeless four times in a 36-month period.
In Pinellas County, Dillinger used a three-year grant to serve 161 homeless people with substance abuse problems and decreased arrests by 96 percent. The up-front costs are more than offset by the annual savings from reducing incarceration, court time, health care and other expenses born by the public. In Pasco County, for instance, it costs the public $56 each day to house an inmate at the county detention center in Land O'Lakes. The estimated annual expense of allowing a homeless person to remain on the street ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 for emergency room visits, criminal justice expenses and other public service costs.
This isn't a new interest for the public defender. Dillinger's office was key in getting a mobile medical mobile unit up and running to serve the Pasco's homeless. It helped 2,240 clients last year, two-thirds of whom would not have had an opportunity to receive treatment if not for the medical van.
Like the mobile medical unit, the public defender's newest budget request for a diversion program is a minimal investment in trying to help Pasco's homeless. Commissioners need to honor that request.