It will start small, but a new Pinellas homeless shelter that opens today should be the beginning of something big. Pinellas Safe Harbor helps fill a significant gap in services and beds for the homeless, and in time it should help people living on the streets in St. Petersburg and elsewhere build more stable lives. Just as encouraging is the cooperation among the criminal justice system, the county, St. Petersburg and other cities that quickly transformed this ambitious initiative from brainstorm to reality.
Safe Harbor opens in a vacant mid Pinellas warehouse once renovated to serve as a jail annex. It will be a soft opening, with up to 25 homeless people in a facility expected to handle 500. The limit will be raised to 50 by next week and rise from there, a smart approach that provides time to get all of the social services in place and work out the predictable kinks.
Ideally, the shelter eventually will serve several purposes. For Sheriff Jim Coats, it will create space for homeless people who are often cited for routine ordinance violations such as trespassing and public intoxication and wind up in far more expensive jail beds. This diversion program will save taxpayers money and keep more homeless people out of the criminal justice system. The facility also eventually will have some separate space for recently released prison and jail inmates who need help making the transition back to the community. Without that kind of assistance, many of those people quickly would end up back on the streets.
For St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and other Pinellas officials, Safe Harbor will help reduce the number of homeless people living in parks and on the streets. Yet the legitimate concerns raised by residents and businesses about the impact of the homeless population on their communities cannot override the constitutional rights enjoyed by everyone. There will be issues to work out as the shelter gears up and public pressure builds to steer more homeless people there by persuasion or more formal means. Continued good-faith efforts by Coats, Foster, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and others should be able to resolve those questions as they arise.
As Foster said Wednesday, Pinellas Safe Harbor is "a start, a beginning." It also is an example of what can be accomplished relatively quickly when local officials work together to build consensus on tackling an issue bigger than any one city or political office.