Each new story of homelessness in Pinellas County makes it clearer that a complex problem that worsened in the recession has not dissipated and requires more resources and creativity to address. Collaboration by law enforcement, social service agencies and Pinellas' 25 local governments is essential to finding, funding and implementing solutions to this vexing countywide problem. And a good place to start is by better supporting programs that have proven successes.
Three Pinellas programs provide examples of how diverse approaches are needed to reach different segments of the homeless population.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri deals with perhaps the county's most difficult segment of homeless: Single adults who have broken the law and are often drunk or high when they are picked up by authorities across the county. Those who have broken minor laws such as a city ordinance are given the option of avoiding jail by going to Safe Harbor, a bare-bones shelter near Largo that opened in January 2011.
While staying at Safe Harbor, residents must do chores, participate in classes and case management, and abide by other rules. Eventually, some hard-core homeless started choosing jail instead, where their care costs taxpayers much more.
So officials thought of a way to encourage them to choose the shelter and its programs. Rather than putting them in the general jail population, where they could socialize, watch TV all day and move freely about a pod, Gualtieri put them in a jail wing with individual cells, no TV and no visitation. Each day a case manager or counselor came to ask if they were ready to go to Safe Harbor. Within days, Gualtieri said, most were ready. Of the 198 individuals who went through that diversion program in five months, only 40 ultimately chose jail.
Though the program worked, it was discontinued at five months because of budget cuts by the sheriff, who is unfairly shouldering $1.6 million of the $2.4 million it costs annually to run the shelter. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has raised the Safe Harbor contribution from $100,000 to $150,000 in his proposed 2015 budget and promises to lobby other Pinellas cities to give more too.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society in St. Petersburg has a broad array of services, serving 600 meals a day, operating a transitional housing program with case management, and running a day program for the homeless and a night shelter. But funding is always tight. Kriseman helped by adding $75,000 to his proposed budget so St. Vincent can keep its day program open longer.
But if Safe Harbor and St. Vincent de Paul include short-term solutions to acute homelessness, other programs, such as the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, primarily support long-term transitions into stability. Since 1986, the charity — which recently received Charity Navigator's coveted four-star status for its fiscal management and transparency — has graduated many homeless individuals and families to more productive lives.
On its five-block campus, HEP provides housing, meals, intensive counseling and occupational opportunities, with the goal of being the last homeless shelter anyone needs. It serves the homeless or very low-income individuals, families, children and veterans, including wounded warriors.
These three successful programs aren't the only ones making a difference in Pinellas County. But they are a testament to the different approaches necessary to address the vast diversity of homeless individuals. And all three rely on collaborative partners and funding to do their work. That's how Pinellas can best address homelessness, working together.