Government usually moves slowly, hence the predictable unease about Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats' bold plan to open a new jail diversion program in just a matter of weeks that ultimately also would serve as a homeless shelter. Details are evolving, and communication lines between other key participants, including St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger, can get crossed. But when the Pinellas County Commission reviews the plan Tuesday, the concept should be encouraged and refined rather than nitpicked to death.
Coats is proposing to launch Pinellas Safe Harbor in a vacant mid-county warehouse formerly renovated to serve as a jail annex. Most of the sheriff's plans focus on serving distinct populations: chronic offenders with city ordinance violations or misdemeanors who may be homeless, as well as people recently released from state prisons or the Pinellas County jail, who would be housed separately from the chronic offenders.
Coats' goal for all of these groups is the same. Using various grants and the help of social service agencies, he wants to enable these individuals to re-enter mainstream society — which would ultimately save taxpayers money. Chronic offenders with minor violations would be given the chance to avoid charges by taking steps toward a more stable life, and all groups would get help toward acquiring more permanent housing, work and, if needed, battling addiction or other health problems.
Less clear — and the component Foster and other cities are most intrigued with — is exactly how much capacity the facility would have to provide for homeless individuals not in the criminal justice system. Coats isn't sure how much demand there would be for the jail diversion component. Nor is it clear exactly how the program would operate alongside a homeless shelter.
The County Commission has a natural interest in all of this. It owns the building, spent $3 million recently in renovations and pays for utility costs. Some, including commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, are willing to defer to Coats when it comes to the jail diversion plan. But there are broader concerns about the creation of a major new homeless shelter with such scant planning. Who would pay for it if the grant funding dries up? Would there be enough security to ensure users are safe? How would transportation for the homeless to and from the shelter — as the courts require — be handled? Those are valid questions that have to be answered.
But most important in Tuesday's discussion is a commitment to work together to do something more to address the county's growing homeless problem, particularly when it comes to those individuals whose lifestyle puts them in constant contact with law enforcement.
It's been three years since the last broad, countywide initiative tackling homelessness. Pinellas Hope is now a thriving operation helping many get back on their feet, but it won't accept individuals using alcohol or drugs or who have violent pasts. That portion of the homeless population is only growing as Florida's economy continues to sputter. Coats, Foster and Dillinger all deserve credit for working together to build consensus on a broad solution. County commissioners and other local government officials should join them.