It’s true that the homeless have all but disappeared from the average commuter’s view as they drive the busy streets of our County. Generally, most have disappeared from public view because of a concerted push over the years by city councils and residents alike towards curing the homeless problem through aggressive legislation against panhandling or open solicition in any form. The new laws, by and large, state that individuals may not panhandle at intersections in most of our cities in Pinellas County. And many of the new laws go further (in the city of St. Petersburg – for example) and even designate where a homeless person can lay down to sleep-often this “suggestion” is directed at the brand-new homeless shelter complex right next to our 49th St. jail.
Consequently, the large majority of our homeless population is still here, they’ve just been labeled a nuisance group and had legislation directed against them. Through that legislation they are effectively being kept out of direct sight of most of the residents in our county. So the short answer is the homeless are still with us in Pinellas County.
It is hard to know which side is more right with the ongoing debate about homeless people in Pinellas County. Differing sides make some very good points. You really can’t fault the City Council of Saint Petersburg, Florida for creating anti- panhandling legislation that backs up many of our residents NIMBY attitudes (NIMBY is shorthand for “Not In My Backyard”). They weren’t the first city council to listen to their constituents and attempt to create some program to correct a complaint or problem. After all, if they didn’t listen to the majority of their constituents then they wouldn’t be holding their public office for very long. It was in June of 2010 that the mayor and city council of St. Petersburg lobbied for and then passed an ordinance specifically directed to stop panhandling by prohibiting the soliciting of money while standing on any public roadway (And with the new law, we also lost our yearly charity drives and our Sunday newspaper vendors).
The long term problem has been considered and discussed from many viewpoints. Steve Nichols, Fox 13 Pinellas reporter (2010) has written about the panhandling legislation targeting the homeless and did report that Dr. Larry Klein said (who has an office at 5th Avenue North and 20th Street in St. Petersburg) “I think it would help clean up the city – I think it would be great for St. Petersburg” he also reported that Councilman Jeff Danner said “the activity is a business-killer” and “every day, it’s another apartment that doesn’t get rented, it’s another house that doesn’t get sold, it’s another prospective business that doesn’t get opened”.
Some of the homeless have not helped their own bad situations occasionally. Through the years, I myself have witnessed a number of homeless people panhandling at major intersections, occasionally stepping out into the moving traffic which definitely is considered a hazard to all and I am sure that most times with each instance someone driving by reported that infraction by cell phone to the local police and sheriff’s offices. With that cell call, the police or sheriff’s office would have to use up valuable time and resources to investigate.
On the surface it would seem there are reasonable justifications to enact new panhandling laws, clear the streets and thus save police manpower for something more important but the reality may be a bit different. Stephen Nohlgren, a Times staff writer wrote in his July 2010 article entitled “Jailing the homeless too costly, Pinellas Officials Say” that what was designed to save money is actually now costing the taxpayers more now. The real results that have being seen is that instead of it costing the charities an estimated $12 dollars a day to help some “down on their luck” individual, it is costing St. Petersburg $126 a day plus medical costs to arrest and hold a homeless person in jail after an infraction. And the total of these costs does not include the value of the time of the police personnel while they question the homeless individual then transport the homeless person to a facility. Or the additional escalating costs entailed through the hospital emergency rooms. It should be noted that while this is happening, there is a reduction in coverage by our area police because they are tied up arresting a homeless individual and not out on the streets to provide blanket protection for the community.
And because bad news travels far and fast, the bad publicity from these homeless arrests has gained St. Petersburg a new moniker. Becky Blanton reports in her well-read blog that St. Petersburg, Florida has been labeled “A City without a Heart” due to the latest panhandling ordinance and its rigorous enforcement.
Here are the real facts: According to some recent statistics from local organizations there are now approximately 7200 + homeless people in Pinellas. Adding to these numbers are the newest homeless due to the housing /mortgage crisis. To appreciate the actual homeless numbers in our county consider that it is the equivalent number of total people in a small rural city in the United States! And breaking down the numbers further: over 18% are veterans, 61% men and 42 % are disabled in some manner (mental or physical). In among this large number of homeless people in our county there are numerous transient battered women with their children, hoping for safety and anonymity.
Many of the Pinellas homeless still congregate in the few “charity friendly” areas where homeless shelters are located and at a number of other help facilities around Pinellas county. While there have been reports of many homeless leaving for Tampa and surrounding counties after the panhandling ordinances were passed, these reports have never been confirmed. The newest facility on 49th St. next to the county jail and near the county animal shelter incinerator (imagine the foul odor most days) seeks to control the homeless residents by offering controlled levels of aid. Some local groups and coalitions have truly tried to help make a difference. Pinellas Hope operated by Catholic Ministries of Pinellas Park offers shelter, counseling, job placement and more. The Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless (PCCH) offers services also. ASAP Homeless Services of St. Petersburg, Florida offers services including: a Women’s and Children’s Shelter/Family Apartments, and the HUB: a job and business training center, they also have a Drop-In-Center with the only public showers in south Pinellas. CASA is the St. Petersburg Domestic Violence help group which offers assistance with the paperwork for domestic violence injunctions at the Courthouse; they additionally offer counseling and some shelter. These are only a few of the many organizations in our county all trying to help; the complete list of organizations is at the end of this article.
These charity groups provide some emergency shelter or transitional housing but not enough to cover the large numbers of homeless in our county. In an effort to help, some charity groups have actively fought city councils to keep transient tent cities operating as temporary housing for the homeless. They additionally have sought to provide reasonable services and a realistic physical address for the homeless job seekers, which makes sense because logically, as it’s tough to get considered for any job when you put down as your address “homeless” or “I live in the woods behind the BP gas station on 49th St. in Pinellas Park.”
These “down on their luck” people need shelter, food and a way to take care of basic body needs. D. A. Lee in a Times article (2010) entitled “Advocates for Homeless Oppose Spread of Anti-panhandling Rules in Pinellas” wrote that Sarah Snyder’s memo reminds all concerned that “the street homeless have few places to go and do not have access to ongoing shelter, sanitary services or indoor food services”. And while the homeless may congregate near these helpful charity places, their basic needs have not necessarily been taking care of properly. The charity groups agree that there are certain basic needs for any homeless individual but recognize that lack of services forces certain action on many homeless individuals. Out of desperation, many homeless still resort to sleeping in wooded areas, on the rooftops of rundown and unoccupied buildings for sale, along railroad track right-of-ways and on the hard public sidewalks in our County. And the corresponding problem about associated body waste is also an issue. Many businesses have a strong NIMBY attitude and most public park facilities lock their doors at night. Any lack of public bathrooms for use is always a major issue but if you group people together as the homeless do, near charity facilities close to St. Petersburg’s Williams Park, for instance, then lock the public bathrooms routinely at 9:30 p.m. and only reopen the doors at 7 a.m. reasonable local public sanitation standards will suffer. The current public policies in St. Petersburg choose to ignore this reality.
I challenge the reader to imagine themselves as being truly homeless: out in the open streets or woods with the florida bugs, no shelter from the sudden rainstorms, the oppressive heat, with almost no money for necessities, your only possessions a plastic chair or tarp inside a tent or shed (if you are lucky enough to have a roof), an old sleeping bag to cover yourself, a few old clothes that need washing and if you are really lucky, an old beat-up styrofoam cooler (that you found in a dumpster) to hold a few bits of food.
That lifestyle description should make you think. So, what’s the answer, if there is one? Just maybe, if each of us do one little act of kindness, or many some gesture, things could improve for our fellow “man”. Charity should begin at home and charity for our fellow man is an important aspect of our humanity and decency. Being good to your fellow man is a civilized philosophy, if you can afford it emotionally and financially. Jean Baptiste Molière (1622-1673) said “Every good act is charity. A man’s true wealth hereafter is the good that he does in this world to his fellows.” And you can’t fault some of the charitable individuals and groups attempting to make a real difference by providing humane help and services to care for the homeless of our county. They have had a measure of success helping some homeless individuals and battered women with children getting “back on their feet” and into regular mainstream society again.
I will admit it; I’ve been on all sides of this issue emotionally. Over the years, I was aware of them and even occasionally handed over a few dollar bills to some of them as I drove to the grocery store or downtown to work. One time, a few years ago, I even tried to help a “regular sign holder” get a job, but mostly I have to confess I have done very little for the homeless. Years ago I was also a NIMBY (“Not in my Back Yard”) and held an unjustified, irrational fear of this homeless man who started living in the woods in my neighborhood. My regret is that it’s only recently that I looked into another alternative for helping and now my occasionally act of kindness is giving my time and a bit of money to some of the worthwhile organizations and charities that are actually helping here in Pinellas County.
A reader of this article might say “Why should I offer my time or money to help these charity organizations? Here are a few very good reasons to help. Sometimes these charity and help groups have improved the living conditions for some that have subsequently left the ranks of the homeless. Need another reason? Because of the economy, you might be a few mortgage payments away from losing your own home. Sometime soon, you suddenly may be in need of help or shelter. Look at it this way, the charity and help group you help today may be the charity and help group that provides you with help in the future.
Reference and Contact List:
Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless
Call 528-5763. Offers cold-night shelters, coordinates services, generates money for programs, conducts annual homeless count and survey.
St. Vincent de Paul
401 15th St. N, St. Petersburg, 823-2516. Food kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the year. Transitional housing, overnight shelter, job, computer and literacy training, and other services.
Free Clinic Beacon House
2151 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Call 823-5780. Overnight and transitional shelter for single, homeless men. Referrals, clothing and personal hygiene items provided. Community kitchen serves dinner six nights a week to men, women and children.
Free Clinic Women’s Residence
814 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Call 821-3894. For single homeless women while they are working, saving and planning for independent living.
ASAP Homeless Services
423 11th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Call 823- 5665. Breakfast, drop-in center, women’s and children’s transitional housing, emergency shelters for families and assistance toward independent living.
St. Petersburg Dream Center
4359 35th St. N, Lealman. Call 520- 1909. Food, clothing, homeless outreach, recovery ministry, job and other referrals.
Daystar Life Center
226 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg. Call 825- 0442. Food, clothing, hygiene items, assistance with photo IDs, food stamps, birth certificates, Traveler’s Aid, transportation to jobs and appointments, mail pickup and referrals.
1400 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg. Call 822- 4954. Emergency lodging, food, shelter, one-stop location for social services agencies.
Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health Homeless Outreach Support Team (HOST)
Call 894-3533 or 821-6051. Services to people who are homeless and mentally ill. Outreach is provided in nontraditional settings such as soup kitchens, parks and shelters.
Pinellas County Medical Mobile Unit
Doctors and nurses stop at soup kitchens and shelters. Call 582-7577.
Transitional Homeless Apartment Program for homeless adults with mental illness. Psychiatric, vocational and other rehabilitative services. Offers permanent housing for the homeless. Call 824-5745, ext. 5745. Safe Haven program for the chronically homeless. Call 209-2456.
Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition
Call 328-3360. Referrals for employment, social services and housing.
Street Safe program for children living on the street. Confidential referrals, food, clothing, shelter and laundry night with soap and change. Call 552-1014. Safe Place to Be, residential program for ages 10-17. Call 384-8336
Here are some web addresses to contact groups and links to other writers on this topic: