Homeless advocates critical of proposed shelter listen11/08/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Pinellas County, especially St. Petersburg, isn’t known for taking extra humanitarian measures when it comes to the area’s large homeless population. A new shelter city and county officials are proposing may dispel – or reinforce – St. Pete’s anti-homeless reputation.
Officials in Pinellas County’s Homeless Leadership Network are calling the facility a courtyard. It would provide beds, showers, bathrooms, a host of services, and food – though they’re not yet sure whether the meals would be hot or cold. In a meeting of the network Friday, Public Defender Bob Dillinger, says the courtyard would be available for anyone in need.
"The concept of the courtyard, I'm not sure that we've completely nailed down but it's generally a place where people can go to be safe, to be showered, use the bathroom and get some food."
Network officials say the closest thing in Pinellas to what HLN is proposing is a Salvation Army facility. This is why they sought the advice of Dr. Robert Marbut, who worked on Haven for Hope, a comprehensive facility for people living on the streets of San Antonio, Texas. He says it’s all about incentivizing members of the homeless population to come to a central location.
"Street feeding really needs to be worked on because if you continue to street feed it's one of your four major magnets. Street feeding, bathrooms, shower, safety/security are your big magnets. So where ever you line those four things up is where your going to have gatherings of homeless peoples."
Critics say that amounts to treating people like animals. Homeless advocate Reverend Bruce Wright says it reminds him of the story of Pavlov’s dog because it aims to condition the behavior of homeless individuals the way one trains a pet. He says the network, which is an assemblage of local government leaders, nonprofit heads, and a single representative from the homeless community activist, simply wants to sweep homeless people under the rug.
"And really the solution is housing first. This is just to get people out of the way that the city doesn't want to be seen, especially during tourist season. And I believe it's also a buildup for the Republican Convention coming here in a couple of years."
Pinellas County Deputy Sheriff Bob Gaultierri says the shelter would be located in a vacant Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority near the County jail. It would house around 500 people, and could be up and running as soon as January. He says there’s one group in particular that could benefit.
"The Florida Department of Corrections releases about 2,500 people a year into Pinellas County. So these are people that have been incarcerated for a period of time and they're coming back to Pinellas County one way or another. The way the Florida Department of Corrections currently releases them is with $100 and a bus ticket, nothing else."
He says the facility could prevent recidivism for those who have nothing when they’re through doing time.
"So, as opposed to them just arriving in Pinellas County on that bus with $100 in their pocket, is that they'll be delivered to us through a portal of entry concept. And when they come in we'll have a discussion with them and give them an opportunity. The opportunity is to avail themselves of re- entry services so they can be self-sustaining, help them get jobs and be productive members of society."
Whether or not freshly-released criminals would be living separately from non-offenders is one of many questions the facility’s planners have yet to address. G.W. Rolle, the homeless community’s sole representative at the table, says this needs to be looked at.
"The ex-convicts know why they're there, but the homeless people are there just because of economic reasons, just because they're poor. And I think that we don't really have a true understanding of the nature of homelessness. Because if we did, we'd treat homeless people different and what we have now, what we're sitting around here at this table talking about is that."
Another is whether those who violate city ordinances targeting St. Petersburg’s homeless will be forcibly taken to the facility, as opposed to the county jail. Wright says he thinks so.
"This isn't a facility that's going to have much of anything there, and it's forcing people that otherwise should have freedom of movement to go to one location, in a sense to eliminate any sight of the homeless in St. Petersburg."
Wright adds that such a facility is an attempt to further criminalize homelessness.
"First of all they're going to have to check in with police that are there 24/7, you know, and they're sleeping on the floor and eating cold food. It's a joke."
The courtyard facility still has a few details that have yet to be hashed out, including questions like who will provide psychological services, what kind of transit there will be to and from the facility, and how it will be financially sustained. The board voted to support it, but directed Deputy Sheriff Gaultieri, the project’s main advocate, to draw up a budget and address the issue of whether to separate convicts from those who are just down on their luck. The Homeless Leadership Network meets again in December.