With Pinellas County's homeless population growing and winter ahead, public officials and charitable groups need to take stock of the supply of cold night shelter locations in North Pinellas. That a longtime shelter in Tarpon Springs is being lost from the shelter inventory requires an immediate response from that community. It will be too late to make those arrangements when the cold winds are blowing.
For 23 years, First United Methodist Church on Tarpon Avenue sheltered and comforted the homeless on cold winter nights. However, the church is being renovated this year and can't provide shelter space.
Local advocates for the poor are worried.
"It's tremendously important," City Commissioner Robin Saenger told the St. Petersburg Times. "We don't want to have one death to the cold. We want to make sure we take care of people who are struggling."
At First United Methodist, the number of homeless people using the shelter averaged about 20 until last winter, when it jumped to more than 40. Though Pinellas now has a year-round tent encampment for the homeless called Pinellas Hope, it does not function as a cold night shelter. Communities need to provide that service or face the potential dire consequences of leaving homeless individuals or families outdoors in the cold.
County and city officials are looking for options in Tarpon Springs. They need someone to volunteer use of a building with heat, bathrooms and kitchen space, and it should be located close to the downtown core because that is where the homeless population is concentrated or will gather when the temperature starts to plunge.
Cold night shelters typically open only when the temperature is forecast to be 40 degrees or lower and only at night. Individuals sleep on mats on the floor and leave in the morning.
While there are not a lot of nights with temperatures that low, any group offering shelter space must be willing to take on the responsibility. The shelters must be prepared and opened on any night that meets the criteria, even during holidays. Volunteers must be willing to staff the shelter during the night.
The Times wrote last week about the possibility of using the city's old fire station on E Lemon Street for a cold night shelter. Its size and location are good, but it needs cleaning and some upgrading. City officials said there is no tax money available for that work.
Unless some other group or property owner steps forward immediately to offer space, the city should organize a volunteer corps to get the fire station in shape. This would be a good project for school groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, civic clubs and faith organizations, as well as skilled workers such as plumbers and electricians looking for a way to fill time between jobs.
This could be life-saving work. Winter is coming, and Tarpon Springs needs a place to shelter those who may not otherwise survive the cold.