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Clearwater says homeless should go to shelters, but most have no space

As part of its campaign to get homeless people off the streets, Clearwater has turned off the electrical outlet in Station Square Park, where the homeless would charge cell phones.
Published Jun. 23, 2012

CLEARWATER

City officials, defending themselves against criticism of their crackdown on the homeless, point to out-of-town shelters as an alternative to the streets.

"We believe there is adequate space in the various facilities to offer beds," City Manager Bill Horne said, mentioning mid-county compounds Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope. "If somebody really wants to be there, there's a space for them."

But social service leaders and homeless advocates say the truth is that shelters and programming are often so strained that many are turned away.

And Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his office's Safe Harbor, a shelter city officials have called Clearwater's "main portal for homeless men and women," is meant to reduce the number of people put in jail, not house the city's homeless.

"That's not right, and it's not what it's intended for," Gualtieri said of Clearwater's position. "We are not in the general homeless population business. That's not our role, and it's not going to be."

Clearwater's plan to reduce homelessness has been likened to squeezing a balloon. The city has welded shut park bathrooms, turned off water spigots in public spaces, discouraged food donations to a local soup kitchen and discussed stronger laws in an attempt to shift the homeless into shelters and services and out of the public eye.

Yet the city hasn't opened any new shelters. And it withdrew its financial aid to a shelter started with city support, which then closed.

Instead, Clearwater leaders seem to favor consolidating the city's homeless elsewhere. Housing the homeless, they say, is not their responsibility.

"It's not a Clearwater problem. It's a Pinellas County problem," Mayor George Cretekos said. "If Pinellas County can come up with a Safe Harbor for St. Petersburg, I would expect the county to come up with a Safe Harbor for Clearwater. Are we any different?"

Opened near Largo in late 2010, Safe Harbor, the county's largest emergency shelter, houses about 400 people daily and rarely has more than a few open beds, Gualtieri said. The city has committed to giving $50,000 to Safe Harbor this year and has considered doubling the payment.

Clearwater contributes to the swelling shelter population more than any other city. Nearly 450 people who stayed at the shelter last month said they had come from Clearwater — about as many as St. Petersburg and Largo combined.

Pinellas Hope, Catholic Charities' tent city for the homeless located not far from Safe Harbor, is also packed full.

Neither shelter accepts children, who make up about 40 percent of the county's homeless population of 6,000, yet both shelters have been designated the city's primary resources for housing the homeless by Clearwater's homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut. Families, he said, would be given access to a county hotline of "virtual case managers" who could direct them on where to stay.

Homeless advocates question whether that would be enough. Last year the Homeless Emergency Project, a longtime shelter and homeless services center in north Clearwater, was able to house only 51 of the 1,473 families who sought shelter there, HEP vice president Libby Stone said. More than 1,700 adults and 2,600 children were turned away.

RCS Grace House, Pinellas' largest emergency shelter for families, has no vacancies. Same for the 24 apartments at the Salvation Army's Transitional Living Center, where the average homeless child is 8 years old.

"There's just not enough space for everyone or enough programming to provide services for everyone. Not at all," said Lisa Matzner, the director of grants development for Religious Community Services. "There's a lot of gaps in our safety net."

Yet since the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP) closed last year due in part to a freeze in city funding, city leaders have resisted proposals for new shelters and safe havens.

Directions for Mental Health, a Clearwater-based behavioral health and child welfare provider, proposed a shelter for homeless families in the empty CHIP building. It was swatted down because of zoning requirements and neighborhood opposition.

And a plan to house poor pregnant women in a defunct nunnery was rejected because a city board declared the building was too close to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen three football fields away. City rules say shelters must be at least 1,500 feet apart.

Though those denials were blamed on existing city rules, officials have not hesitated to change ordinances affecting the homeless. Guided by Marbut's recommendations, officials are now crafting potential regulations on sleeping in public and sitting or lying in public right-of-ways.

The city has paid $25,000 to consultant Marbut, who says the stricter ordinances are needed to end the city's "history of enablement."

But homeless advocates say such ordinances criminalize the homeless by banning activities associated with basic survival.

"You've got to offer the alternative before you lower the boom. They haven't done that," Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "They so want the homeless out of Clearwater, and this appears the way they're going to do it. I would much prefer to give them services."

Some city efforts have already met opposition. Neighbors of Crest Lake Park, where crews welded the bathrooms shut, said the move was too hasty and damaged the park's appeal. The city has agreed to pay $200 for portable toilets at an upcoming benefit near the park's locked bathroom stalls.

"What you're doing is simply making it harder for anyone on the street to sustain their life," said Tom Pierce, the executive director of the Florida Department of Children and Families' Office on Homelessness. "It doesn't solve the problem. It doesn't take that individual that's homeless today and get them off the street."

Sandy Newland, who said she was evicted from her Dunedin home two years ago after the day-labor firm her husband worked for went out of business, said she feared the coming ordinance changes could lead to harsher crackdowns. Living on the street, she said, is already tough enough.

"If you want to really help the homeless, find jobs for them. Give them a place to stay," Newland said. "The homeless are not just going to go away."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. to write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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