The ranks of the homeless are growing, and so is the public's discomfort in communities not accustomed to seeing significant numbers of homeless people out and about — communities such as Tarpon Springs.
In the past, small numbers of homeless people camped in the woods around Tarpon Springs. They were seldom seen.
But now, downtown business owners are finding homeless people sleeping in their alleys or in vacant lots and are hearing complaints that their customers are being hit up for money on the sidewalks. Police are finding homeless people sleeping in city parks and along the Pinellas Trail.
Where the homeless congregate, public urination and litter have become a problem. And right or wrong, residents have come to believe that certain areas of the city are no longer safe because transients are there.
Late last month the Tarpon Springs City Commission responded to the increasing complaints by discussing the issue at a commission meeting. Most commissioners demonstrated that they understand the complexities of the homelessness problem and the challenge of addressing it.
Unlike some among the general public, commissioners know that not all homeless people are drug or alcohol abusers. Some have physical ailments that prevent them from working, or they have mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia that are untreated because they can't afford treatment or can't manage their own affairs. Many are veterans who can't find jobs or are suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.
Some homeless people work, but don't earn enough to afford shelter. In fact, according to a 2007 survey of the county's homeless by the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, 39 percent work full or part time.
Some had homes but have lost them in this dismal economy. The ranks of the homeless include families with children, who live in their cars or in vacant lots. In 2007, 18.5 percent of the Pinellas homeless were children.
Tarpon Springs officials are concerned that some of the homeless people in the city are coming from Pasco County. Some have wondered if the Shepherd Center, which provides a hot meal to the hungry along with other much-needed services for the poor, might be attracting more homeless people. Center officials denied that they draw the homeless to the city, but said that people who are hungry, no matter where they come from, should be fed. And they should.
Some speakers suggested that the city should turn a vacant building in the city into a shelter for the homeless, but with government budgets so stretched, few cities would take on the cost of operating a homeless shelter.
However, the commission was open to solutions that would not involve substantial costs, including these good ideas:
• Starting a business Crime Watch.
• Finding a way to distribute information about available services to homeless people.
• Researching ordinances some other Pinellas cities have created to outlaw aggressive panhandling.
• Talking with Pasco officials about ways to partner on solutions.
• Improving lighting in certain areas of downtown.
• Scheduling future workshops with area experts on the homeless.
Several speakers at the commission meeting addressed the terrible shortage of affordable housing in Tarpon Springs. Some of the working poor are homeless because they can't afford the market cost for housing. The Tarpon Springs Housing Authority is overwhelmed with 541 people on a waiting list for subsidized housing. Yet the city was cool to a recent overture from Pinellas County to participate in a countywide inclusionary housing ordinance that could spur the construction of more affordable housing.
Homelessness is growing. If Tarpon Springs wants to tackle the problem, it needs to do so from all angles.