St. Petersburg is busy polishing the city's image by banning panhandling and spraying deodorizer where the homeless congregate. All that has done is saddle other cities with more panhandlers and made the streets smell better. The city's decision to hire an expert from a Texas homeless program to develop a broader plan may help. But if St. Petersburg wants to reduce homelessness instead of covering it up, a more sophisticated approach will be required.
After several city officials visited Haven for Hope, a comprehensive homelessness program on 37 acres in San Antonio, the city hired the program's founding president, Robert Marbut Jr., under an eight-month contract to deliver a plan for addressing the problem here. In a recent city work session, Marbut said Pinellas already has more social service infrastructure in place to help the homeless than San Antonio did when it started. But he said the services are scattered and don't work together. He noted there is not even transportation to move homeless people around the county to access the services.
Marbut said St. Petersburg has twice as many homeless people as San Antonio. But he emphasized that the ones who are visible — the chronic "street homeless" that occupy so much of St. Petersburg's attention — probably represent only about 20 percent of the city's homeless population. Suffering out of sight are the other 80 percent: individuals and families who could achieve more stable circumstances with the right intervention.
Rather than really helping homeless people, St. Petersburg has seemed intent on moving them out of sight, including banning street vendors starting in June. The result is that panhandlers have moved to Tampa and other nearby cities, and officials in those cities now are contemplating their own street vendor bans, which would harm charities and businesses (including the St. Petersburg Times). But those who think the street homeless have gone away in St. Petersburg should see what Marbut saw one recent evening: 93 homeless people sleeping on the grounds of City Hall.
Some officials seem less interested in Haven for Hope's extensive services to reverse homelessness and are more focused on a related Haven program: a San Antonio facility called Prospects Courtyard, a grassy area where the chronic homeless who don't participate in the Haven's other services are fed and allowed to sleep. While such a secure facility may be the best option for those who won't leave the streets, it doesn't help the majority of homeless individuals and families, including children, who want a better life, and it does nothing to prevent homelessness in the first place.
St. Petersburg should be less concerned about its image than about the growing number of people in desperate circumstances who have nowhere to turn. Marbut's objective advice on how to improve the coordination and efficiency of homeless services in Pinellas may prove invaluable over the long term, but people need help today — not just with food and shelter, but also job skills, child care, and treatment for physical and mental illness.
Homeless people from Northern states already are coming south for the winter. St. Petersburg officials should solicit advice from other successful Pinellas programs and move more quickly. Even Marbut advised them not to wait for his report. "One thing we learned in San Antonio," he said, is "you just start."
And not by spraying more deodorizer.