As a candidate for St. Petersburg City Council from District 8 last year, Amy Foster said she would work to clean up nuisance motels along 34th Street, long known as magnets for violence, drugs and prostitution. But Foster didn't learn until this month that the city was housing homeless families with children in those motels, including the notorious Mosley Motel, where eight registered sex offenders live. Calling that practice "dancing with the devil," Foster demanded the city immediately end the irresponsible policy and convinced her council colleagues last week to unanimously approve a change in housing procedures. Her activism underscores a broader issue that local officials need to address: There is neither proper attention, coordination nor adequate funding being devoted to the problem of homeless families.
The speed with which St. Petersburg employees have found alternative lodging belies their initial explanation that they had no choice but to house families in the Mosley and some similarly unsuitable motels. Using a list from the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, which also places families in emergency housing on occasion, city staff found motels that had passed the board's inspection and cost only slightly more. The city's newly adopted housing policy requires formal inspection and approval of sheltering locations, and the process must include checking the state sexual offender registry and city nuisance abatement records.
Several council members used strong words last week in supporting Foster's call for a change. "The government should not be in the business of doing something that's not safe for people," said council member Steve Kornell. And even the city's manager of social and homeless services, Cliff Smith, said he had been troubled by use of the motels after he arrived in St. Petersburg last summer. It's not clear why he didn't stop the practice then, but he says switching to better-quality motels won't be a big drain on finances. "I'm glad we're doing it," he said.
For Foster, the issue is about more than just safety. It doesn't make sense, she said, for the city to help support a motel that is a drag on the 34th Street corridor, and a landlord, Michael Shimshoni, who is considered the city's most troublesome. It also isn't very effective, she pointed out, to put homeless families in a motel where there are no services offered to help them achieve financial stability.
That latter point speaks to the inadequacy of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County's homeless policies, which tend to focus far more on homeless adults living on the streets than addressing the estimated 6,000 families countywide who are homeless. St. Petersburg's budgeted funds — $3,000 a month — for its street outreach team to use to pay for motel rooms and bus tickets don't go far. Pinellas County adds another thousand dollars. But that $4,000 is usually exhausted within a couple of days, officials said, while the calls for help keep coming all month long.
There is hope that a legislative effort led by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, will provide resources for community efforts statewide, in the form of grants worth up to $500,000. That assumes the $3.8 million item in the 2014-15 state budget isn't vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. But even those resources won't be enough if Pinellas governments and agencies don't get serious about working together now to map a broader strategy for helping homeless families, who are often out of sight and out of mind. Foster started St. Petersburg down this path, but no one in City Hall should stop now.