CLEARWATER – Fed up with a homeless problem that was getting out of hand, the city of Clearwater adopted a carrot and stick approach to homelessness.
The carrot was helping vagrants who wanted help to connect with homeless shelters and other social service agencies. The stick was cracking down on minor crimes, such as drinking in public, trespassing and aggressive panhandling.
Dr. Robert Marbut Jr., an expert on homelessness, was hired to spearhead the effort. On Sept. 6, Marbut, whose contract was renewed, and Ekaterini Gerakios, the city’s Homeless Development manager, briefed the Clearwater City Council on the progress that has been made thus far.
“Homelessness is not a new phenomenon in Clearwater; it has been with us for years,” Gerakios told the council. “However, our city management and the city council have determined that this should be one of our priorities and something we should no longer neglect.”
Marbut said that the secret to solving a city’s homeless problem is to switch from a culture of “enabling” the homeless to one of “engagement” with them.
“Clearwater used to be very enabling,” Marbut said.
Libraries provided a place for vagrants to snooze, use the toilet, shave and wash up. And overworked cops ignored minor infractions so they could concentrate on more serious crimes. Well-meaning people and organizations that thought they were helping the homeless by “street feeding” them were actually compounding the problem, Marbut said. He told of one man, not connected with any organization, who fed 30 homeless people per day out of the back of his van.
Trespassing continues to be a problem, Marbut said, but it is not as bad as it used to be. He showed photos of some of the 30 encampments he had found, most on abandoned properties such as a former day labor office that was broken into and a vacant lot where vagrants erected a shantytown that resembled a hobo camp of the 1930s. He added that 29 of those encampments have now been shut down, and many of the homeless who have not moved on have taken to sleeping in boats, either in boatyards or on vacant properties.
Marbut said that the number of homeless in Clearwater has dropped dramatically, from about 265 to 300 two years ago to 50 or 60 last month. But he added that the homeless count drops at the beginning of each month, when the homeless get their disability checks and can afford to stay in a cheap motel, and it goes up again toward the end of the month, when they run out of money.
“One place that we really need help is to stop giving money out the window” of cars to roadside beggars,” Marbut said.
Not only is it illegal, but also it is dangerous both to the beggar and the motorist.
He showed a photo of one man, reputed to be Clearwater’s most successful panhandler, who has a new sign every day. The man is holding a sign saying that he needs money for karate lessons because his family has been kidnapped by ninjas.
Police and other city employees are being trained to better deal with the homeless, Marbut said. Also, merchants are encouraged to post signs saying that Clearwater cops can issue a trespass warning to people loitering on their property and arrest anyone who refuses to leave after being warned.
Concurrently, Clearwater and county staffers will be reaching out to the homeless, including those banned from the Pinellas Hope or Pinellas Safe Harbor shelters for crimes such as striking a police officer, and trying to find a place for them to stay.
“I think it is important for us to realize that this is going to be an ongoing process,” Mayor George Cretekos said.