St. Petersburg: Are homeless people again flocking to downtown?

From left, Morgan Hill, 45, Errin Shelton, 37, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, talk with reporters in Williams Park last week in downtown St. Petersburg.
From left, Morgan Hill, 45, Errin Shelton, 37, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, talk with reporters in Williams Park last week in downtown St. Petersburg.
Published Feb. 25, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been 18 months since the city ousted the hundreds of homeless people that slept around City Hall and elsewhere downtown.

But a recent uptick in homeless people — from the Grand Central district to the downtown waterfront — has raised concerns that the problem may be returning.

Even the lauded consultant, who helped devise the city's homeless strategy, said he believes the city needs to do more outreach work on the streets.

"You have to keep up with the maintenance," said Robert Marbut, hired by the city to help with homeless issues from October 2010 through November 2011. "That worries me."

Anecdotal reports of more homeless people downtown conflict with a recent homeless count by the city that showed as few as 27 people downtown at night and 179 during the day.

"I don't think they're accurate," council member Jeff Danner said of the counts. "I see more people than that. I'm getting a lot of complaints."

Danner and council member Leslie Curran said the city's efforts have slipped since Marbut's contract expired and Rhonda Abbott, a city manager who battled homeless and veteran issues for six years, left in November.

"They both went above and beyond their jobs to talk to people," Danner said.

Curran agreed, saying: "We've taken a step back. We need someone on the streets."

Not so fast, said Mayor Bill Foster.

He attributes the uptick to a seasonal migration and a harsh winter in northeastern states. He also believes others flooded the Sunshine City after Hurricane Sandy in October.

"It's the palm tree effect," he said.

The biggest issue, he said, is the chronic homeless who don't want to be helped.

The city has hired someone to replace Abbott, he said.

Cliff Smith, Pinellas County's assistant director of health and human services, will start June 1 after he has exhausted his remaining vacation time at the county, Foster said.

Smith will be paid $68,500 per year, the same salary Abbott received.

Foster said he believes the city's homeless counts were accurate.

The homeless population had shrunk since the city tightened its rules on panhandling and instituted a general ban on street solicitation in 2010.

In July 2011, St. Petersburg started enforcing an ordinance that bans sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks. Police take violators to jail or to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's shelter off 49th Street in mid-Pinellas.

Still, the many homeless people last weekend in Williams and Unity parks surprised Marbut, who still consults with the city of Clearwater and took a drive through St. Petersburg.

As for the overall effort, Marbut gave the city high marks on everything expect outreach, which he describes as 10 percent of the total work.

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He and Abbott canvassed streets for six hours on most days to talk with people, Marbut said. With the gains in place, the effort shouldn't take more than a few hours a day now, he added.

The biggest trigger, he said, is when 10 or more people hang out in one place.

With Smith not starting until June, the problem will only grow, he said.

"You want to get after it now," Marbut said. "If you let it fester, you're going to have big problems."

A man who spent many years living on the streets said the city needs more social workers in the parks, not police officers shooing people away.

"The city doesn't have a good strategy," said Gregory Rolle, a St. Petersburg resident and member of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. "There aren't many solutions being offered."

Curran, who owns a art gallery on Central Avenue, said more homeless people are loitering in alleys and panhandling in the district. She believes outreach workers should ask business owners about emerging hot spots.

Curran and Danner worked to bring Marbut here from Texas. She doesn't believe the city needs to hire him permanently, but her biggest concern is that the city will have to start over if the issue grows.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said he has heard about homeless hanging near businesses by Tyrone Square Mall.

"Losing Rhonda (Abbott) was not good for the city," he said. "She did a great job."

Foster cautioned that the city has the problem under control.

"It's significantly better than it was three years ago," he said. "It's a work in progress."

Mark Puente can be reached at or (727) 893-8459.