CLEARWATER – Every year, representatives of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board visit the county’s estimated 100 homeless camps, conduct sidewalk interviews, and get statistics from school officials, homeless shelters and the county jail regarding the number of homeless people that are registered on that day. The figures are then compiled into an annual “Point-In-Time” picture of the county’s homeless population.
At its Aug. 4 work session, the Clearwater City Council heard the statistics for the 2014 study. Ekaterini Gerakios-Siren, the city’s Community Development Manager, and Rhonda Abbott, Executive Director of the Pinellas County Homeless Emergency Project presented them.
“It’s not the people you see on street corners,” who are homeless, Abbott said. “It’s you and me” because the Great Recession has not fully ended.
To deal with that reality, the Homeless Leadership Board was created in February 2012. It is comprised of eight elected officials and 13 community leaders.
In addition to conducting the annual survey, the board coordinates the spending of more than $4 million a year on “Continuum of Care” projects, works with state agencies that assist the homeless, expedites the re-housing of homeless veterans, develops shelter standards and runs a model program for homeless families. It also coordinates a media campaign to educate the public about homelessness.
This year’s “Point-in-Time” survey estimated that there are 2,117 homeless adults sheltered or housed in Pinellas County, as well as 1,105 unsheltered adults and 2,526 homeless children. In the Clearwater area, there are 627 sheltered and 332 unsheltered adults, as well as 21 sheltered children. The good news is that school officials report a slight downtick in the number of homeless children.
The study found that the county’s homeless population ranges in age from 2 weeks to 81 years. Males make up 66 percent and females account for the other 34 percent.
Fifty-two percent of the homeless have serious mental illness, 37 percent have depression and 48 percent have a physical disability. But, contrary to the stereotype of the homeless as chronic alcoholics or junkies, only 35 were found to have substance abuse problems.
“We’re doing some good things here in Clearwater and the numbers (of homeless people) are down,” Abbott told the council.
Instead of being taken to jail, for example, first-time offenders with minor violations are offered a free ride to a homeless shelter.
“Our end goal is not to put them in jail, but to put them in a shelter with services,” Gerakios-Siren said.
But she added that many of the longtime homeless prefer jail to having to obey all the rules and regulations that homeless shelters impose.
Clearwater has many partners in its efforts to control the homeless population. The Homeless Emergency Project alone serves 400 homeless people each day. Pinellas Hope I is an emergency shelter, and Pinellas Hope II, which provides transitional housing, recently received a grant that will enable it to build 76 additional efficiency apartments by 2015.
Pinellas Safe Harbor, a 470-bed shelter in an obsolete jail facility has six full-time case managers and costs only $13 per resident per day to operate, compared to more than $100 a day for a regular jail. Between October 2013 and June 2014, Religious Community Services’ Grace House provided temporary shelter for 357 children and 221 parents, and 85 percent of those families moved on to more permanent housing. And the Salvation Army of Upper Pinellas has reconfigured the family units at its transitional living shelter and added a new computer lab and a classroom where residents can learn new life skills.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos endorsed the idea of helping the homeless as long as it is done through recognized charities.
“It’s a whole lot better if you make a donation to one of these service organizations instead of enabling the person on the street,” he said.