It isn't by accident that substantial progress is being made on humanely addressing Pinellas County's issues with the homeless. After years of good intentions but uncoordinated efforts and a lack of government commitment, Pinellas County is no longer warehousing people or leaving them to fend for themselves. People are being steered to shelter and services that help them transition out of homelessness, and the results are encouraging. The next step will require more compromise, consensus — and money.
For years, Pinellas County and St. Petersburg in particular have had an intractable problem with homelessness that has affected business districts and tourism. On a typical evening, something like 200 people could be seen camping out around St. Petersburg City Hall and surrounding areas. Now observers say that population is down by about 70 percent, even as the population of the jail also has declined. Meanwhile Safe Harbor, the shelter the city and county opened five months ago, has attracted about 335 people every night.
In a county with too many fiefdoms and too little regional thinking, Safe Harbor is a remarkable coming together of Pinellas County public officials, city mayors, top law enforcement and court officials. Local social service agencies and charities are also giving generously, with Metropolitan Ministries recently agreeing to provide the evening meals.
When Safe Harbor is completed, the facility will have 370 beds inside and a capacity of up to 100 in a covered courtyard. But what makes Safe Harbor different is the intense supervision to help people access a continuum of services and track their progress. Case managers are essential to this effort, and Safe Harbor will soon have a large, highly trained team on the job. This will allow homeless people to come for help from throughout the county, and then either stay or be sent to more appropriate housing. Robert Marbut, a St. Petersburg consultant whose work with the homeless in San Antonio is widely lauded, has helped design incentives that prod people to voluntarily help themselves, giving them more and better amenities as they adopt healthful and productive lifestyles.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has been instrumental in the coordinated effort, and he is prudently waiting to enforce the city's no-sleeping ordinance until space in Safe Harbor's outside courtyard is available. Even then, there will be legal issues to review and turf issues to resolve. Some one dozen or more social service agencies and nonprofits provide help to the homeless, with some overlapping services and insufficient coordination or accountability.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who chairs the Homeless Leadership Network, says the network is working on those issues. Welch agrees with Foster and others that a more streamlined, flexible leadership structure is needed. He makes a convincing case that there should be a way to keep the expertise of social service providers as part of the network but eliminate conflicts of interest in deciding how $4 million in federal grant money is allocated.
Pinellas County still has a shortage in local emergency shelter for homeless families, but for homeless individuals there is now a safe, reasonable alternative to living on the streets. Since Safe Harbor opened Jan. 6, more than 1,300 people have stayed there, including repeat visitors, and about 300 of those people have been placed in other types of housing. That's encouraging, measurable success.