Pinellas County speakers put focus on humane treatment of the homeless

Sheriff Robert Gualtieri and former County Commissioner Susan Latvala describe the challenges and successes — including cost savings — since a Clearwater homeless shelter opened

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Susan Latvalla. Image courtesy Pinellas County
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. Image courtesy Pinellas County

The topic at hand was the homeless facility in Pinellas County — Pinellas Safe Harbor — which opened in January 2011. However, Susan Latvala, who was involved in its establishment as part of her 14 years of service as a Pinellas County board member, asked the Sarasota County commissioners to bear with her on Oct. 13 as she began what she said might seem an unrelated anecdote.

One of the toughest things she had to do after her election to the Pinellas board in 2000, she told the Sarasota board, was to visit the county animal shelter. As an animal lover, she continued, she just did not want to take a tour, knowing that thousands of dogs and cats have to be humanely destroyed each year. “We take really good care of those animals, and, yes, some of them get put down.” Latvala said. “But we go above and beyond to find a caring, loving home for these animals. And here are human beings that we weren’t treating as well,” she pointed out of the homeless in Pinellas County. “That aspect of it really played on the Pinellas County Commission,” she added, as discussions ensued about solutions to the situation.

“I know you struggle every year with your budget and the sheriff’s budget,” Latvala told the Sarasota board. “We struggled with that.”

Nonetheless, she continued, working with Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri and the county’s chief judge, “we realized that, long-term, we’re saving money. Opening another wing of the jail is not the answer.”

The cost per day for an inmate in the jail is $126, Gualtieri pointed out, whereas the daily expense for a person in Safe Harbor is $13.

The shelter’s annual budget is right around $2.3 million, Gualtieri noted, and his department covers about $1.7 million of that.

Although the Sarasota board had invited just Gualtieri to make a presentation on Oct. 13 about his department’s operation of Pinellas Safe Harbor, Latvala accompanied him to the meeting. Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s director of homelessness services, asked the Sarasota board to give her an opportunity to speak.

“It’s not going away,” Latvala said of the gathering of homeless people in Pinellas County. “It’ll never be gone completely. But it’s been greatly improved,” she added, since Pinellas Safe Harbor opened.

Latvala also pointed out how disturbed tourists are at seeing homeless people on the streets. She urged the Sarasota County board to open a shelter. Even though the homeless do not vote for elected officials, she added, “they’re still your responsibility.”

Gualtieri also stressed, “Any place that you open has to be some place that’s not in the middle of nowhere.” It must be located near services the homeless need, he pointed out, as well as close to bus transportation, so the residents who do find work can travel to their jobs.

As community leaders began focusing on better ways to handle the homelessness situation in Pinellas County, Gualtieri said, his view was “we can do better than people sleeping on a cardboard box on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg and sleeping in the parks …”

Before Safe Harbor opened, he continued, “there was such a urine stench in the morning, [city workers] had to spray in downtown just to get [the odor] away from the City Hall … It’s 100 percent better on the streets throughout the entire county than it was several years ago.”

The background

Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri. News Leader photo
Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri. News Leader photo

Overcrowding in the Pinellas County Jail was a primary factor in beginning the discussions that led to the establishment of Safe Harbor, Gualtieri explained. About 500 people were sleeping on the jail floor. “It was an officer safety situation.”

Many of the inmates had been arrested for offenses such as sleeping in parks, urinating in public and having open containers of alcohol, he pointed out, mostly related to their \ homelessness.

One man in the city of St. Petersburg was arrested 76 times and jailed for more than 500 days for such offenses, Gualtieri added. The jail is “a revolving door that accomplishes nothing.”

He pointed out, “The criminal justice system has become the dumping ground for a social problem.”

He continued, “We had meetings upon meetings upon meetings and discussion upon discussion upon discussion,” but nothing was being accomplished.

By 2010, Gualtieri said, it was obvious “we were paralyzed.” At that point, though he knew he was going to “ruffle feathers,” he decided to adapt a closed jail in Largo into a homeless shelter. “[The homeless would] have a place to go, out of the jail, out of the criminal justice system, and we’d offer services so they could become productive citizens, where we could deal with their mental health issues, their alcoholism, their drug abuse, because pretty much [the homeless] all have that.”

While he anticipated a small shelter population at first, Gualtieri continued, almost immediately, Safe Harbor was serving 400 people every day, “and that’s where it stays today.”

Pinellas Safe Harbor is the homeless shelter in Clearwater. Photo courtesy of Pinellas Safe Harbor
Pinellas Safe Harbor is the homeless shelter in Clearwater. Photo courtesy of Pinellas Safe Harbor

The facility did have the desired effect, he pointed out: Homeless people no longer were being put in the jail.

Further, he said, people began commenting on how the homeless had disappeared from the streets. “If we shut [Safe Harbor] down,” he added, “and [the situation] went back to where it was — oh my God.”

In response to a question from Sarasota board Chair Carolyn Mason, Gualtieri said that anyone can come to Safe Harbor 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When law enforcement officers encounter homeless people on the streets who are violating laws and who will not go voluntarily to Safe Harbor, he continued, the officers issue a Notice to Appear to the individuals and take them to the shelter anyway. Once they are at Safe Harbor, a case manager meets them and works with them, he added. If they agree to accept services, he continued, the Notice to Appear gets converted into some form of community service.

“Is Safe Harbor perfect?” he asked. In answering that question, he explained that the people who come to the facility get help from social service agencies. Nonetheless, “these are the worst of the worst,” he said. “I’m not saying they are bad people,” he added. However, “they have such immense problems that they can’t help themselves.”

Many deal with alcoholism and mental health issues. The only criterion for allowing someone into Safe Harbor, he pointed out, is “you’re breathing.” He told the Sarasota County commissioners, “You can be as drunk as you want to be. You can be as high as you want to be.”

At the facility, each homeless person receives assistance through the implementation of a master case management plan, Gualtieri said. Still, “some of these people you will never, never, never reach, because they are OK with what they are doing and who they are.”

Homeless people used to be a more common site in downtown St. Petersburg, Pinellas County leaders say. Image from Google Maps
Homeless people used to be a more common site in downtown St. Petersburg, Pinellas County leaders say. Image from Google Maps

Recently, one provider of case management services “abruptly pulled out,” he continued, leaving just five counselors. “We’re not having the successes that we once had in transitioning these people” into programs outside Safe Harbor or into housing, he told the board, adding that the shelter needs more counselors and case managers.

“The whole key to success is the counselors and case managers” in a shelter, he added, which enable the homeless to lead successful lives.

Numerous “community partners” assist his staff at the facility, he continued, including faith-based organizations that help feed and clothe the homeless.

While most of the 24 cities in Pinellas County have contributed to the shelter’s budget, he said, that totals less than $250,000 per year. St. Petersburg is providing $150,000 of that, he pointed out. “I say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s nice, but it isn’t carrying the day.”

Largo is the only city in Pinellas County that never has provided funding to Safe Harbor, he noted, because the shelter is in an area the city annexed several years ago.

In frank discussions with some of the mayors, Gualtieri told the Sarasota board, they had told him that the homeless were his problem and that the solution was the jail, because all county taxpayers contribute to the operation of the jail. “After a couple of years of frustration,” Gualtieri added, “I came to the realization that that is just the way it is.”

Shelters and other options

Gualtieri explained that after Safe Harbor opened, he began holding neighborhood meetings to provide residents the opportunity to ask questions and air complaints. At the outset, more than 100 people came to those sessions, he said. The last time he held one, only two people showed up. He attributed that to his emphasis on assigning community policing deputies to the neighborhood to make sure the shelter and its inhabitants do not have a negative impact on the surrounding area. With a facility such as Safe Harbor, he noted, “you have to have some sort of law enforcement presence …”

When his office does hear from residents, he noted, the complaints are “more annoyance type calls.” For example, Safe Harbor residents may panhandle, he said, but they are not committing crimes.

The shelter first had a 10 p.m. curfew, he said. After it became clear that some of the people staying there would eat their evening meals and then go to convenience stores and buy alcoholic beverages and come back to the facility intoxicated, he set 8 p.m. as the curfew.

A fenced-in courtyard with portable toilets, sleeping mats and water service is where people must stay if they are too drunk or high on drugs to be admitted at night, he added.

Drugs, alcoholic beverages and weapons are not allowed in the shelter, he pointed out.

Both Gualtieri and Latvala referenced the view of some communities that getting the homeless into housing should be a higher priority than a shelter — a view espoused by members of the Sarasota City Commission. However, calling that strategy the “new flavor,” Gualtieri stressed that many of the homeless are “OK with [being homeless]. “We just want them off the street” and not in the jail.

In response to a question from Commissioner Al Maio, Gualtieri said that opening multiple facilities of the same type in the county would mean redundancy of services, “and it’s expensive.” Safe Harbor “is centrally located in the county, so it worked for us.”

Further, Gualtieri pointed out, “The homeless community has its own network, and they communicate very well.” If more than one shelter were available, he continued, the homeless would be inclined to rate the facilities and encourage their fellow homeless people to use some instead of others. “I think having [all the resources] in one place allows for better continuity of operations, better accountability and better efficiency.”