St. Petersburg and Tampa are two very different cities struggling with a common social problem: homelessness. A recent poll suggests that the cities' residents, while generally supportive of initiatives to curb the street presence of homeless individuals, still express an air of ambivalence over the best long-term action to help society's downtrodden. Local leaders need to continue to look for solutions in the new year on both sides of Tampa Bay. Panhandling ordinances may have made some of the homeless less visible, but they are not gone or forgotten.
A recent Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll suggests Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn could learn a few lessons from his counterpart, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, on addressing homelessness. Foster has made it a signature issue during his two years in office and received a 48 percent satisfaction rating on the topic among St. Petersburg residents — within the 5.6 percentage-point margin of error of Foster's 51 percent satisfaction rating on the issue in 2010.
In 2010, Foster backed the superficial and ill-advised city decision to ban panhandling on city streets. But in the past year, Foster's efforts have led to more constructive outcomes, including the opening of Pinellas Safe Harbor in Largo, a 500-bed homeless shelter that provides showers, meals and job counseling services, at a cost of $1.8 million a year. To date, Safe Harbor, a joint project of several local governments, has led to a significant decrease in the homeless population on the streets. Foster is now focused on opening a much-needed shelter for women and children.
Meanwhile, Tampa's Buckhorn has approached the homeless question with a series of unfocused fits and starts in his first year, finally settling on an unfair six-day-a-week ban on panhandling that neither addresses the root causes of homelessness nor provides any meaningful assistance to those who find themselves cast onto the streets. His approval rating on the homeless issue: just 37 percent. And Tampa residents seem especially ambivalent on the issue, with 22 percent supporting stronger measures and 23 percent disapproving of the panhandling ban. Thirteen percent approved of the ban but wanted exceptions.
Buckhorn is at a disadvantage. Thirty years ago, the city transferred responsibility for providing social services for the homeless to Hillsborough County. And several laudable efforts in recent years to shelter the homeless have failed to gain traction with county officials — including a 2009 Catholic Charities proposal to create a homeless camp east of Tampa similar to the successful Pinellas Hope project. Since then, only Commissioner Al Higginbotham has remained a strong, consistent voice on finding a humane solution for the homeless.
Nonetheless, with the homeless most visible in Tampa, Buckhorn appears to be making appropriate moves to help find some longer-term answers. He has met with county officials and enlisted the help of Tampa Bay Lightning chief executive officer Todd Leiweke, who as CEO of the Seattle Seahawks chaired a United Way campaign that raised $100 million to address family homelessness.
As Tampa prepares to host the Republican National Convention this summer, Buckhorn has no shortage of pressing issues on his plate. Still, the mayor needs to move aggressively in working with Hillsborough County while taking advantage of Foster's experience to push for a Safe Harbor-type facility on his side of the bay. Homeless isn't a St. Petersburg or a Tampa issue. It is a regional crisis that is best addressed with long-term vision, not short-term gimmicks.