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Failed model in Pinellas

The data from Pinellas County’s come-as-you-are homeless shelter doesn’t bode well for Sarasota County.

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  • | 2:40 p.m. November 19, 2015
Pinellas Safe Harbor
Pinellas Safe Harbor
  • Sarasota
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Eileen Walsh Normile, former Sarasota city commissioner and ​past chairwoman of the Sarasota Police Advisory Panel, sent the following letter to Sarasota County commissioners Tuesday. The contents of her letter should make city and county taxpayers question the county’s determination to open a come-as-you-are shelter on the northern border of the city.   — Editor

Dear County Commissioners:
With your vote to move ahead with the Come-As-You-Are (CAYA) shelter concept, I thought it might be helpful to your planning to have some additional information about the 400-bed shelter in Pinellas County that Dr. Marbut recommended as a model CAYA shelter for Sarasota. This information was collected as part of a study by the city of Sarasota’s Police Advisory Panel.

I am attaching the Pinellas Safe Harbor (PSH) Statistical Reports for 2013 and 2014. These are available via a public records request to Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department.

Most noteworthy in the reports:  The number of “clients served” for the year 2014 averaged about 1,800 per quarter vs. 1,300 in 2013. (That is the number of specific and distinct individuals entering PSH. Individuals who have multiple admissions to PSH during the quarter are counted only once for tracking purposes.) Year to year, numbers are going up, not down.

Under “Destination Upon Discharge,” there is a category called “Unknown” (i.e. the individual simply disappeared from the shelter without any known job/home/program, etc.).  The “Unknown” category is missing from the 2014 report, but a call to Sgt. Haisch, who runs the shelter (727-464-6340), confirmed that the omission is a clerical error. In fact, the number of people who left the shelter and for whom there is no known destination was 3,790 in 2014 vs. 3,370 in 2013.  

Again, the numbers are going up.

“Disagreement with rules”
The “Reasons for Leaving PSH” category shows that 4,901 left for “other—mostly missed curfew” in 2014 vs. 4,597 in 2013.
In 2014, not one person left the shelter having “completed program” vs. two in 2013. 

The next three biggest reasons for leaving PSH were “disagreement with rules,” “criminal activity” and “non-compliance with program.”  

Admittedly, the CAYA shelter structure is not necessarily intended to have people complete programs while they are residents, but PSH has not been able to quantify any benefit to its “clients” because most simply disappear. The ONLY quantifiable benefit appears to be jail diversion.

As you know, PSH is located at least 10 miles from either St. Petersburg or Clearwater. It is in Largo. 

It is interesting to note that PSH relied upon a Community Policing Grant to hire additional police officers assigned to ensure that individuals leaving PSH did not congregate or remain in the Largo area. This is not insignificant, because when at capacity (averaging 400), PSH serves 400 breakfasts but only about 150 lunches. 

Two hundred fifty “clients” are typically absent from the facility during the day. There are apparently no statistics to illustrate the number who are involved in positive activities, such as job training or counseling rather than loitering, etc.

Away from cities
When Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri spoke to you recently, he mentioned that a CAYA shelter should ideally be situated in the middle of the county for the convenience of the county’s police departments. 

While Dr. Marbut claimed that the facility must be close to the jail so that the public defender’s office can service it, Bob Dillinger, Pinellas County public defender (727-464-6866), says otherwise. In fact, he does not even maintain an attorney at the shelter, and he indicated a preference for having the shelter located away from the cities. 

To quote Mr. Dillinger: “It could be 5 or 10 miles away, and it wouldn’t make a difference.” Routine legal services are provided by an administrative aide. Medical services are provided by a county mobile medical unit (bus). All social services are on-site.

Please also remember that the CAYA shelter would be expected to service transient sex offenders — a demographic that is particularly important to get off the street.  

A simple search of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department database indicates that there are 21 sex offenders currently registered as “transient” within 5 miles of Sarasota’s Main Street. That number would likely be multiplied several times within Sarasota County.  

These individuals often have restrictions about where they are allowed to reside. Most are prohibited from residing within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, etc. This poses a special challenge for locating a CAYA shelter in an urban area; the sheriff could not bring sex offenders to the facility without breaking the law.

Cautionary tale for Sarasota
In sum, the PSH Come-As-You-Are shelter is a cautionary tale: 

1) The numbers of homeless “clients” have increased substantially from year to year since its inception in 2011. 
2) The simple “warehousing” of homeless individuals has produced only one quantifiable benefit, and that is a reduction in jail inmates.
3) A large percentage of the individuals who enter PSH are in dire need of mental health and substance-abuse programs, but the vast majority simply walk out of the facility rather than submit. There is no data to prove otherwise.
4) Since Pinellas County benefits the most from the reduced need for jail space, it pays more than 90% of the operating cost of PSH, with the cities contributing a pittance in comparison.
5) There is no provision for handling homeless sex offenders within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, etc.
6)  Any neighborhood in the vicinity of a large-scale shelter would undeniably suffer the consequences of absorbing a large concentration of chronically homeless individuals — a large percentage of whom suffer from serious mental health and addiction problems. (Any open-door facility, regardless of its use, housing hundreds of people placed in/around a residential community would be a behemoth.)

The cost/benefit analysis shows the county benefiting from the addition of jail diversion space for nonviolent offenders, while the community immediately surrounding the facility (particularly in an urban environment) is paying a price in safety and security. That analysis can be improved by moving any large facility of this type to a more rural setting where natural buffers to shelter activity exist.

Today, the Salvation Army announced that it is pivoting its services to encourage ​the goal of permanent housing ​rather than continual homelessness. It is following the lead of the Suncoast Partnership Continuum of Care and even the federal government. 

There are verifiable studies that prove the outcomes of a “housing first” strategy. The sad statistics of the Pinellas Shelter indicate that it is a failed model — unless the only goal is to create a large-scale, open-door alternative jail facility — with permanent negative consequences to the community and no quantifiable long-range benefits to anyone else.  

As Salvation Army Major Ethan Frizzell was quoted as saying in the Herald Tribune, “The Salvation Army wants to end homelessness, not enable it.”  

I would hope that is everyone’s goal.

Eilee​n​​ Walsh Normile


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