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To control homelessness, consultant suggests Clearwater change rules, withdraw street feedings

Published May 19, 2012

CLEARWATER

Worse than too few jobs or shelter beds, worse than too little food or too much addiction, the city's "homeless problem" boils down to a single cause:

The city is too enabling.

That's according to homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, who presented his new plan of action Thursday to help heal the city's problems with its poorest class.

Clearwater, he said, is the second-most enabling city he has ever visited, with public power outlets and "street survival" guides contributing to a "history of enablement" that keeps the homeless on the streets.

To fight back, Marbut told the City Council, the city needs to engage the needy in programs for jobs and counseling at places like Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope, both outside the city limits.

But first, he said, the city must crack down on urban enablers like open bathrooms, lax police enforcement and what he called "renegade food" giveaways from charities and church groups.

"There's no accountability of the food, no services connected to the food at all," Marbut said. "No one has got out of homelessness just because they got fed. That has never happened."

Listed among Marbut's 47 recommended "strategic action steps," the result of his two-month study, are preventing the homeless from lying down on sidewalks, banning bathing in fountains and sleeping in public places, expanding rules about panhandling and "hoarding" in backpacks or shopping carts, and expanding police arrest authority for what are now minor offenses that now just result in a ticket.

Marbut proposed the city try to shift homeless sleeping and feedings to places like Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope, shelters that do not admit one of the quickest growing groups of homeless: families with children.

For those families, Marbut said, Pinellas County has two "virtual case managers" who can be reached by phone to direct them to a shelter or safe haven. Meals, he added, should only be offered at centralized kitchens.

For some, that may not be enough. Chana Champagne, 24, a mother of two young children who recently moved into a home on Turner Street, said she works at Walmart and depends on street feedings several times a week.

Without them, she said, "I would definitely be struggling for food."

Some of Marbut's recommendations were specific, including a redesign or removal of the bathrooms at Crest Lake Park, located between Cleveland Street and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard east of downtown. The homeless there, he said, jam the door automatic locks with toilet paper, allowing their nighttime use for drinking, drugs and prostitution.

Other recommendations were more general, reflecting a needed "change in culture" for local social services. In one of his written suggestions he proposed, "Meanness/Sternness —> Kindness/Love."

Marbut, a community college professor and founder of Haven for Hope, a homeless compound in San Antonio, Texas, was hired by Clearwater in March to offer his ideas on accommodating the city's growing ranks of homeless men, women and children.

In researching Clearwater, Marbut said, he went undercover, dressing in clothes from a homeless shelter and fake-sleeping through the night in the East Gateway, the beach and downtown.

The city will pay him about $16,000 for three months of consulting, up to $3,700 for flights and car rentals, and up to $51 a day for food, his contract states. The city will also pay for Marbut's hotel stays.

On Thursday, the council supported Marbut's steps and indicated it will continue to work with him on homeless strategies and training.

Barbara Green, CEO of the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, said she supported Marbut's emphasis on services, saying, "Without engagement in programming, these individuals and families will remain on the streets or at risk."

But some homeless people and advocates say Marbut's specific steps, instead of promoting programming, served more to "criminalize the homeless," ensuring those on the streets will be more likely to face arrest.

"If you wanted to get rid of the homeless, what would you do?" said Mike Powers, 53, who has been homeless for just over a year. "Make it miserable for them to find a place to sleep."

Kris DiGiovanni, the executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in downtown Clearwater, called Marbut's approach "short-sighted, inadequate and inhumane." City leaders have tried to force the soup kitchen out of Clearwater to Safe Harbor, the homeless shelter next to the Pinellas County jail near Largo. The city even considered telling the soup kitchen's food donors to give their food to some other organization.

"The homeless are first of all human beings, and they need to eat, just like everyone else," DiGiovanni said. "Removing a dependable source of food only serves to drive them to desperation, and desperate people are more likely to do desperate things to survive."

Mayor George Cretekos said Marbut's proposals stood a much greater chance of helping someone out of poverty than street feeding or cash handouts.

"To allow people to continue to live that way without reaching out to help them is criminal," Cretekos said. "Allowing them to continue to sleep in parks, allowing them to continue to push carts all over town … that's criminal."

Some homeless people said they are worried Marbut's ideas will mean a crackdown on street dwellers or forced relocations.

James Palmer, who said he has been homeless for five years, said the shelters pose their own dangers for theft and violence. Support like street feeding often helps more than other programs.

"They say any time anybody gives you something, it's enabling," said Palmer, 56. "Yeah, that's enabling you — to live, one more day."

Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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