Controversial homeless shelter to open in Largo tomorrow

01/05/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Tomorrow marks the opening of a controversial homeless shelter next to the Pinellas county jail. The shelter will first house those who come on their own, but will soon start forcibly bringing in people caught sleeping in the streets or violating other local laws.

At noon tomorrow, Pinellas Safe Harbor will open its doors to twenty-five homeless men and women who wish to go there. Today in what will be the facility’s designated inebriate area, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said they’ll get three meals a day – two cold, one hot, a mat on which to sleep, a pillow, a toothbrush, a towel, and access to bathrooms and showers.

"The Harbor is a portal. It's a start, it's a beginning. All we're trying to do here is to provide for the basic necessities. A mat. Yes, it's a mat on a concrete floor, but it's better than a cardboard box on a street corner. It's running water, it's warm water to take a shower. It's a toilet. It's the basic necessities of life. It's air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter."

Next Tuesday, the county hopes to increase the voluntary population to fifty. After that, Chief Deputy Sheriff Bob Gaultier said, they’ll start bringing in those who violate ordinances.

"Once we get past the fifty who will all be voluntary, then we'll embark down the path of those who may not want to come voluntarily. And those that are now being arrested on the ordinance violations. We'll have a process in place where if they do have to get picked up on those ordinance violations, they'll still come here. It'll have to be converted over to a notice to appear and they'll have an opportunity to go through a diversion program which will still keep them out of the jail. Still keep them out of the criminal justice system and hopefully will give them the skills, the tools, the resources to get on their feet and be productive."

Mayor Foster said up to now, the police simply arrested homeless people who violated ordinances, which he said is pretty pricey.

"Because of the $125 a day at the jail, that is no place to take somebody that is down on their luck and homeless. And we all get that, we got it. Up to this point that was the only place we could take these people who are violating the ordinances such as public urination. Such as open container, public intoxication, and things like that."

The facility is located in a jail annex on 49th Street North, near Ulmerton Road. One could describe it as Spartan at best. The walls and floors are concrete, there are no partitions between shower heads, and the bathroom stalls have curtains for doors. Those who check in can watch flat screen TVs mounted high on the wall until their mandatory 10 pm shutoff time. Foster said such sparse furnishings attract won’t attract permanent dwellers to the shelter.

"We're not creating new homeless, this is not going to be a panacea for people to say, 'I'm going to quit paying rent because I can get it all free at the Harbor.' That's not the case. The people are here anyway. And with care, with compassion, we can get them off the streets, we can do better than that cardboard box on the street corner. And we can get them inside where it is safe, where they do have the basic necessities that are provided and a system in gaining self sufficiency."

Pinellas Homeless Coalition director Sarah Snyder said the facility will serve as triage for those who might need to be referred to other services in order to find their way off the streets.

"This is the first step in helping us to get people off the street so that they don't have to live on the street anymore. In January of 2010 we counted 2200 people who were living on the street. This is men, women, and children. That is a one day count."

The facility is open to men and women, but does not have the capacity for families with children. Intoxicated individuals are allowed in, without alcohol, and there is an amnesty drop box outside the front door where those checking in can drop any illegal items without risking citation. But homeless advocates have been critical of the new facility.

"We have plenty of vacant houses and apartments in St. Petersburg."

Reverend Bruce Wright advocates the housing first model, and said the new facility further criminalizes homelessness.

"Why do we continue to try to solve a human rights problem with law enforcement? It's simply because the mayor does not want the homeless visible."

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coates said telling ordinance violators to choose between the shelter and jail is not criminalizing homelessness. He said the shelter isn’t just another incarceration method, given that those brought in against their will are welcome to leave the following morning.

"You can move about the facility. You have an opportunity to leave if you want and then come back. It's a much better place to stay, I'll tell you that, then the jail. Plus you're not being prosecuted through the criminal justice system for some of the minor infractions that they may have committed."

Homeless advocate Bruce Wright disagrees.

"None of us would like to go there. I've seen the place, it's a jail without bars. It's right next to the jail, it's fenced in, Irregardless of whether people can come and go. They're going to be watched, they're going to be screened, it's going to be run by law enforcement. Would any of us want to live in a place that's run by law enforcement?"

The shelter opens tomorrow and reportedly has an emergency capacity of 500.

Previous WMNF coverage of homelessness

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large population centers high

It seems that counties with large populations have a higher unemployment that rural areas. If people look at an area and think they can simply move there to get work, it would not work. If there are only a few jobs in unpopulated areas then going there would only increase unemployment in that area. It looks as if the old areas in the south and west that had large manufacturing and smaller companies that supported that population are gone forever. Just as the steel industry supported a large population due to the other non-related companies that served that population, “with good jobs” for their needs such as food, furniture, housing, and everything else is gone. It has gone over-seas and left these large areas to stagnate. What jobs can we make for these people? We can all go into health care to support the aging population, if you qualify. It seems to me that our government by letting large corporations to close plants and move to low wage countries has let the people down and suffers for the greed. The tax code and wall street are to blame, and we let them buy our politicians and our future.