Last month the City of Clearwater hired Robert G. Marbut, Jr. Ph.D. as a consultant to find ways to reduce the downtown homeless population. Dr. Marbut is no stranger to Pinellas County. About two years ago he worked with the City of St. Petersburg to help with its homeless population. He was a consultant for Pinellas County’s Safe Harbor, a homeless transformation facility operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
At a recent neighborhood meeting Dr. Marbut said he had spent some time posing as a homeless individual in order to assess Clearwater’s homeless population. He said there are three sub-populations within Clearwater, the beach, the east side, and the Gateway area.
The beach mainly attracts homeless people from out-of-town. They have developed their own way of communicating to protect each other from police and to inform each other of economic opportunities. The homeless on the east side of town are primarily from Hillsborough County and they have built camps with tents donated by non-profit or other organizations. This group is resourceful and they have found ways to get electricity and cable TV as well as some other amenities. The homeless in the Gateway area are people who once had homes in Clearwater.
Overall Dr. Marbut found Clearwater to be a very hospitable area to homeless and maybe second only to another city in south Florida. He said there are many organizations that provide free no strings attached meals or other things to Clearwater’s homeless. The homeless have adapted and found ways to make use of city buildings and facilities to handle basic needs. This needs to change because living on the streets and being homeless is not an acceptable option.
As a founder of Haven for Hope, a San Antonio, TX homeless outreach and transformation facility, Dr. Marbut embraces a seven step principle of transforming individuals from being enabled towards becoming engaged. One step is stopping pan handling. Dr. Marbut found that for every dollar given to a homeless person on average $0.93 goes to pay for drugs, alcohol, or sex. Rather than giving that homeless person that dollar a day he suggests sending $365.00 to an agency that can help get that person off the street.
On May 17th Dr. Marbut will present what he has learned about Clearwater’s homeless as well as recommendations towards reducing the homeless population. Part of this recommendation will include a 45 item action plan. Some of these items will include closing the gap on local ordinances that allow loitering and sleeping in public places. Some of these items may not be easy to accomplish and will involve many meetings and discussions to change or modify behavior.
Other steps involve enforcement of social crimes like urinating in public, open containers, and disorderly conduct. Offenders would be given the choice of going to jail or going to Pinellas Safe Harbor. Costs for jail are about $ 100 per day and costs for Safe Harbor are less than $ 20 per day. When offenders are re-arrested the days in jail with no early release go up each time. This approach is similar to San Diego’s Serial Inebriation Program.
The homeless problem is only expected to get worse as the majority of individuals that make up the homeless, military veterans, single mothers, and young adults face difficult economic times. Dr. Marbut’s plan might not be perfect but it does adress the big picture rather than one group or many groups coming in to address one small piece of the puzzle. A comprehensive approach will move Clearwater in the direction it needs to go. As we move forward then we can re-assess and re-evaluate what needs to come next.
The solution is not relocating or dumping homeless people to other cities or communities. Just like lessons from management 101, you don’t push your employee problems onto another manager and this holds true for this problem too. Transforming homeless individuals back into contributing members of society should be the long-term goal.
Clearwater has its hands full with this problem and should have done something like this earlier. Now that it is being addressed like this we all need to play a part to make it successful. We all pay for homeless in some way. The cost to us is passed along in additional taxes needed to clean up parks, libraries and other public spaces that are being used for unintended purposes. We also pay by avoiding places frequented by the homeless. This hurts us and it hurts the merchants trying to help our city.
Let’s hope Dr. Marbut’s plan is an effective step in the right direction. If it does work then the City of Clearwater needs to fill the Assistant Director of Economic Development and Housing position with the right person quickly. There just might be a whole lot of people looking for work in Clearwater.