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Homeless camps? Florida has tried — with mixed success

Experiences with tent camps in Gainesville and Tampa Bay offer lessons.
 
Pinellas Hope residents Darryl McCullough, center-right, and Anthony Hayes, right, soak up some morning sun at the community shelter on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater. Residents live in 34 tents seen in the background, and in 90 cottages available in the community.
Pinellas Hope residents Darryl McCullough, center-right, and Anthony Hayes, right, soak up some morning sun at the community shelter on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater. Residents live in 34 tents seen in the background, and in 90 cottages available in the community. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 5

Angela Martin’s slide into homelessness started when she was 9.

That’s when she was first admitted to a mental health facility. Suffering from a plethora of mental and physical ailments including schizophrenia, she became a daily user of intravenous methamphetamines and ended up homeless, living in a tent, she said.

But as she emerged from that tent one morning last week, she received a helping hand — from Joe Pondolfino, the program director for Pinellas Hope in Clearwater.

Martin, 47, is one of hundreds of homeless people living in the facility’s tents, part of a complex of apartments, showers and a kitchen run by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

“Pinellas Hope has given me a second chance at life,” Martin said.

State lawmakers are preparing to pass sweeping legislation that would require counties to remove homeless people from public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks.

Pinellas Hope tent community resident Angela Martin, center, is helped to her wheelchair by program director Joe Pondolfino on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater.
Pinellas Hope tent community resident Angela Martin, center, is helped to her wheelchair by program director Joe Pondolfino on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Where counties would place them is up to county officials. But under House Bill 1365, counties could designate public land, away from neighborhoods and businesses, for “public camping or sleeping.” Security, sanitation and behavioral health services would have to be available.

The idea has been condemned by advocates as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach that will lead to further criminalization of homeless people.

But places such as Pinellas Hope offer an example of how such a system could function — from the type of security to the services offered.

“Based on what we’ve done for the last 17 years, this model works,” said Maggie Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Gainesville, on the other hand, offers a cautionary tale of a tent camp that had to be shut down over violence and drug use.

“We have seen the vision that you are trying to portray here today,” Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, told Republicans on the House floor on Friday.

“That didn’t work.”

Gainesville’s experience

The idea for the legislation came from Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Jacksonville, who said communities have to take back their public spaces. Florida cities can’t become like San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said.

At the same time, he said his heart breaks for homeless people, and keeping them on the streets to “fend for themselves” is “unacceptable.”

“I have no illusions whatsoever that when my Lord returns, he’s not hanging out with me,” Garrison said. “He’s going to be with those folks, serving their needs.”

Democratic lawmakers and advocates have raised practical and philosophical concerns. Communities might not have land available or be able to afford the cost of maintaining such a camp. Moving people off the streets could lead counties to choose between forcing people into camps or arresting them, neither of which is considered best practice.

In 2014, Gainesville tried an approach to a tent camp. The city had an unsanctioned 200-person homeless camp near downtown. When it forced residents out of it, the city said they could set up their tents near a new emergency homeless shelter offering meals and showers.

At first, the new camp worked, according to a paper about Gainesville’s experience published in The Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy last year.

The city offered clean water, bathrooms and trash pickup, and residents showed pride in their surroundings. But the city had no strategy to move people into permanent housing, according to the paper, and the camp swelled to several hundred people. Drug use and violence increased, despite police assigned to the camp, and there were rumors of human trafficking.

Permanent housing is considered the best long-term strategy, and it’s how cities such as Miami have been successful in reducing homeless populations. Garrison said he doesn’t disagree but said communities can’t wait years for housing to be built.

How much communities spend on homeless services adapting to the legislation will “make or break” how successful they are, said Jon DeCarmine, co-author of the Georgetown paper and executive director of the nearby homeless shelter, Grace Marketplace. The shelter worked with the city to end the encampment.

Lawmakers so far are budgeting an extra $10 million across the state to help counties adapt to the changes. Under the legislation, the state’s 29 “fiscally constrained” rural counties don’t have to provide the sanitation, security and services required under the bill.

“What problem are we trying to solve? If it’s visible homelessness, this might make some impact,” DeCarmine said of the legislation. “If it’s ending homelessness, I don’t think this gets us there.”

What sites could look like

Rogers, the Catholic Charities director, said the legislation would have to be implemented properly.

“I think it has to be well-thought-out, well-planned, and they have to look at models across the nation that have worked,” she said.

New Pinellas Hope resident Sandy Silvey visits with her chihuahua Bay Bay in her Hope Cottage on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater. Hope Cottages are 20-foot steel shipping containers that have been reconfigured to create 3 rooms in which residents live and that replace tents.
New Pinellas Hope resident Sandy Silvey visits with her chihuahua Bay Bay in her Hope Cottage on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in Clearwater. Hope Cottages are 20-foot steel shipping containers that have been reconfigured to create 3 rooms in which residents live and that replace tents. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

About 230 people sleep at Pinellas Hope’s 10-acre campus each night, in either its apartments, tents or cottages converted from shipping containers, Rogers said. It has an annual budget of $2.1 million, from donations and funding from cities. The money pays for full-time staff, case management services, showers, a laundry room and a library. Daily meals are donated.

The shelter screens out sexual offenders but otherwise admits anyone. Drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed on site. It does not have security, just staff with deescalation skills, Rogers said.

“They want it to be their safe place,” Rogers said.

Joe Cornell, 61, could be one of the people forced to relocate under the legislation. His gold-colored tent is tethered to vines and a pair of stackable storage drawers on an undeveloped plot of upland scrub on Rowan Road in New Port Richey.

He was forced into homelessness more than a year ago, he said. He’d had a series of run-ins with the law, he said, including a 1991 conviction for drug trafficking.

Joe Cornell, 61, tends to his homeless encampment on a rural tract of land off Rowan Road on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in New Port Richey. Cornell, who has been homeless for a year, said he has had a difficult time finding employment.
Joe Cornell, 61, tends to his homeless encampment on a rural tract of land off Rowan Road on Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024, in New Port Richey. Cornell, who has been homeless for a year, said he has had a difficult time finding employment. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Whenever he leaves his tent, his few belongings are vulnerable to being stolen. He said he would consider moving to an organized camp for better security.

“I have lost everything,” Cornell said. “And now I am starting all over again.”