A consultant's report last week on an uptick in the number of homeless adults in downtown St. Petersburg and his call for more funding for the county's largest homeless shelter is a timely reminder that there remains a need for coordinated commitment across Pinellas County when it comes to battling homelessness.
St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse summed up the situation well when he heard consultant Robert Marbut confirm that more homeless had returned to gathering in downtown parks three years after Safe Harbor, a shelter operated by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, had helped make a marked improvement in the problem: "We almost had it solved and then we moved our attention elsewhere."
Safe Harbor, which houses more than 400 near Largo, was envisioned as a facility that all Pinellas cities would help support. The brainchild of the Sheriff's Office and then-St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, it immediately addressed two acute issues: the hundreds of homeless who had taken up residence in the county's largest downtown and a way for the sheriff to keep homeless people who committed minor crimes out of the overcrowded and more costly jail, thereby saving tax dollars.
St. Petersburg committed $100,000 a year and Foster lobbied other Pinellas cities to pitch in, since their homeless could go to Safe Harbor, too. Sixteen of the 24 cities contributed. But now, only six cities are helping and St. Petersburg's contribution has remained $100,000. Yet the shelter costs $2.4 million a year to operate. The sheriff is forced to provide $1.6 million of that amount and cannot afford to offer additional staff or programming that might improve future outcomes for residents once they leave Safe Harbor.
Among the casualties in the budget squeeze was a program heralded by Marbut as having had an impact in its short five months: an innovative homelessness diversion program that showed success in persuading some of the more incorrigible and chronic homeless to accept help in achieving a more stable lifestyle. Marbut thinks the city should find a way to help Gualtieri restore that program as well as help St. Vincent de Paul's, which runs a shelter downtown, to provide 24-hour programming for the homeless. He also urged the city to remain committed to serving families, whose needs can be far different than those of chronically homeless adults.
There can be a tendency to write off homelessness as a St. Petersburg problem due to its high visibility, but when asked on intake where they spent the previous night, 60 percent of Safe Harbor residents say mid or North Pinellas, Gualtieri says.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has committed to increase his city's share of funding to Safe Harbor, but other cities need to step up too with money and ideas. It will take countywide effort to address this challenge in a meaningful way. If the number of homeless is growing in St. Petersburg, it will soon grow elsewhere, too.