Six months after the Safe Harbor homeless shelter opened in Pinellas County, some problems are emerging. The shelter, located in a former warehouse in the unincorporated High Point area, has provided shelter to more than 1,500 people and appears to be decreasing the population of people living on the streets across Pinellas. But it also has led to dramatically more calls for service for Largo's police and fire departments. This worthwhile project needs additional tweaking to ensure that one community doesn't bear an unfair burden in tackling a countywide problem.
From the outset, Safe Harbor has been a refreshing response to homelessness, particularly for those homeless who eschew traditional shelters that are more stringent about admission. Sheriff Jim Coats late last year offered a vacant warehouse and initial staffing in the belief he would ultimately save taxpayers money because fewer of the hard-to-place homeless would end up in the county jail for violations such as public urination or intoxication. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster signed on as Safe Harbor's chief fundraiser, seeing an option for the growing concentration of homeless in the city's downtown parks.
The shelter opened in January and now draws more than 300 people daily who seek a safe place to sleep and a meal. Most of them likely never run afoul of the law. But for Safe Harbor's neighbors, more needs to be done to mitigate the impact of concentrating so many destitute people in one place.
Largo police Chief John Carroll reports homeless-related calls to his department have nearly doubled to 942 in the first six months of 2011, leading to nearly three times as many reports than a year ago. Crimes range from mugging and shoplifting to public nudity. But the chief also acknowledges he has stepped up enforcement in the wake of the shelter's opening. The additional calls amount to roughly one additional call per shift.
The Largo Fire Department's emergency medical services have also been called to the shelter 228 times in the past six months, an expense that will be partly mitigated by the countywide emergency medical system funding. Such demand should also give more impetus to the sheriff's request that the county offer more medical care at Safe Harbor.
Supporters for Safe Harbor say they are certain there are fewer homeless-related calls countywide since the shelter opened. They need to collect the data to prove it. But they should also acknowledge Largo's burden. Foster has prudently suggested the shelter would rescind a donation request from Largo for $25,000 to $50,000. And Coats should consider how his law enforcement efforts in the unincorporated area might coordinate with Largo's. But all of Safe Harbor's partners — particularly cities that have seen a decline in those living on their streets since the shelter opened — should contemplate whether Largo deserves compensation in light of its disproportionate burden.