Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, advocates a plan to use federal grant money to build a small clinic at Safe Harbor to serve the homeless.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County’s grand plans to build a one-stop center to provide care to its homeless and indigent population will likely be replaced with a project much smaller in scale.
County Commissioners spent about three hours the afternoon of July 16 discussing the options. In the end, the consensus was to explore the possibility of getting federal funding for a smaller clinic, possibly for Safe Harbor.
Commissioners had previously approved accepting a $5 million grant for construction of a Bayside Health Campus. Ongoing cost is a big issue. The federal grant would pay for construction of a 15,000 square foot facility, but provide no money for operations or maintenance. Latest estimates show it would cost about $3 million a year to provide the level of care staff recommends. Officials still have to solve the problem of how to get those who need care to a fixed location.
Questions about expenses to furnish, maintain, operate the facility, along with ongoing issues with involved third party stakeholders caused the commission to begin rethinking its decision.
At a meeting June 3, Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, encouraged commissioners to find a way to accept the federal grant. She suggested that a smaller facility be constructed that would meet the terms of the grant, but not over-extend the county’s capacity to provide services.
Dharamraj advocates construction of a “little clinic,” in or near Safe Harbor, which is taxing Largo Fire Department’s resources due to emergency calls for health care. It also would be close enough to serve Pinellas Hope.
At the July 16 meeting, staff seemed to agree with Dharamraj’s plan. Commissioners asked staff to explore the possibility of receiving a smaller grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to build a smaller clinic. They also directed staff to talk to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to get his opinion on a clinic at Safe Harbor.
Safe Harbor is a place where the homeless can find shelter. Gualtieri opened Safe Harbor in 2011 to better serve the chronically homeless, keep them out of the county jail and the criminal justice system. It is primarily a jail diversion program.
Commissioners seemed favorable to exploring the options of opening a small clinic in or near Safe Harbor. Commissioner Ken Welch cautioned that building the clinic would mean Safe Harbor would become a permanent expense. Costs for the shelter are currently being split between the county government, the sheriff’s office, the city of St. Petersburg and other municipalities.
“Safe Harbor has served its purpose,” Welch said.
He said having a clinic to serve Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope was definitely worth considering, especially in lieu of the strain it was putting on emergency services provided by the city of Largo.
“But we need to recognize that it (Safe Harbor) will become part of the budget and will be going forward,” Welch said.
Commission Chair Karen Seel said staff was just exploring the possibilities.
“I don’t hear support for building a clinic for families,” she said.
The commission discussed other plans to serve the homeless population, including the need for affordable housing and additional prevention measures.
Welch agreed that prevention was better than trying to help after individuals or families become homeless.
Commissioner Janet Long questioned the wisdom of using county staff to serve the homeless.
“We have multiple agencies working on homeless issues in this county,” she said. “Why are we not contracting with them instead of using our precious resources? People are already doing this work.”
Seel agreed that Long’s concept was worth exploring.
Commissioner Charlie Justice agreed, adding that the county should partner with agencies that are “stable and have long-term respect.”
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard said staff would continue work on the matter and report back to the commission in 60 to 90 days.