Pinellas Safe Harbor has been a source of controversy since 2010 when the Texan, Dr. Robert Marbut, was hired to consult with the City of St. Petersburg on the city’s homeless issue. After plans of Safe Harbor were made public by Mayor Bill Foster and the Homeless Leadership Network, homeless advocates were heavy with accusations, calling the plans inhumane. Others criticized the costs.
When Safe Harbor opened in December 2010, the current Sheriff, Jim Coats, billed Safe Harbor as a diversion program to help homeless people deal with their minor offenses and help them stay out of jail. Basically, the argument was made that this is a cost-saving measure, as a stay in the shelter would cost the county far less than incarceration.
Fast-forward to yesterday’s Pinellas County Budget Forum held at St. Petersburg City Hall, and Safe Harbor remains a hot topic for debate—and that cost-savings piece is at the heart of it.
Currently Safe Harbor houses some 400 homeless persons, and Sheriff Gualtieri is asking for a $1.6 million increase that would be directly allocated to Safe Harbor. Overall Gualtieri is requesting a $6.8 million increase from last year to pay for various needs, totaling $213.7 million.
A heated voice of dissent about the Safe harbor allocation came from Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche who accused the Sheriff of running a homeless shelter on the Sheriff’s Office dime. Roche explained that a recent tour of Safe Harbor revealed to him that nearly half of the people there were not being diverted from jail; that they had arrived on their own to the site seeking shelter.
“If it’s a diversionary program, that’s one thing,” Roche said, “but if Safe Harbor has morphed into a homeless shelter, then Gualtieri should let someone else take over. Running homeless shelters is not the job of the sheriff.”
Gualtieri maintained that Safe Harbor is indeed a diversion program just as it was designed. He said that Roche is wrong.
Safe Harbor “gives police a place to take the homeless rather than charging them with minor infractions,” said Gualtieri. He explained that the program gets them off the street and helps them get back on their feet so they don’t commit as many crimes.
As for cost saving, Gualtieri is firm on his position that Safe Harbor saves money for the county. In addition to helping deal with a critical jail overcrowding issues, Gualtieri said he would have to open two wings in the jail to house these homeless individuals, costing about $4.5 million. “That means Safe Harbor actually save taxpayers about $2.9 million,” he said.
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