Pinellas Safe Harbor is a success story so far. The Pinellas County homeless shelter is an effective alternative to jail for homeless people picked up on open container and other minor ordinance violations, and a safe place for other homeless to sleep and access services. But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster should proceed with caution in his efforts to send more homeless people there until the facility is fully functioning and the legal issues are clearer.
Foster told City Council members last week that he would soon order the enforcement of ordinances that ban sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks and the storage of personal belongings on public property. He indicated that the areas of the city where the homeless congregate such as Williams Park, City Hall and the Princess Martha senior apartments would soon be transformed as a result.
Understandably, Foster wants to see fewer people living on the streets. From both a business and humanitarian point of view, it is better for the homeless and the community if decent shelter and services replace a cardboard box on the ground. But enforcing ordinances that, in effect, make it a crime to be a homeless person is a legal minefield. Rushing to do so will buy the city an expensive lawsuit and potentially add to the jail population.
To his credit, Foster recognizes those issues. After discussions with Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, the mayor has agreed to hold off on enforcement until Safe Harbor is fully operational. The facility still has to complete its outdoor courtyard, and there isn't yet the full complement of case managers on staff — professionals who are key to getting homeless residents the help they need to leave the streets permanently. Foster believes by about June 20 or 21 those issues should be resolved and his plan can go forward.
But that could be needlessly rushing things. Safe Harbor has been successful due to the cooperative approach taken by area public officials. Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, the County Commission, Foster and other local city mayors, Dillinger, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and the courts have put narrow interests aside to work together. Foster says he's been a partner in the effort and intends to continue in this vein. But his pledge to start enforcing the city's no-sleeping ordinance in relatively short order may cause the goodwill to evaporate.
There are legal questions about what constitutes a shelter bed and whether the spots in the outdoor courtyard qualify. Foster says they do, and police can legally arrest homeless found sleeping on sidewalks when, after a warning, they refuse to accept an outdoor spot at the shelter.
This is not an argument that should be joined just yet. Let Safe Harbor fully operate for a while as it is supposed to work. It may be that the city's homeless population will beat a path to the shelter's door, with no legal coercion necessary. If not, St. Petersburg should be on firmer ground before strictly enforcing the no-sleeping ordinance.