TREASURE ISLAND — The death of a man in front of a McDonald’s restaurant that police blame on another homeless male on July 1 shined a light on an ongoing vagrant problem and has shaken the confidence of residents who felt safe living in their city.
During an Aug. 20 work session, City Manager Garry Brumback and Police Chief Armand Boudreau addressed the issue. They told commissioners the city is working with social service agencies to get help for the 12 to 14 vagrants who inhabit the city, with police using enforcement whenever it is legally possible.
It is not unusual to see homeless men passed out or sitting against buildings with dazed stares in the alleyway behind 107th Avenue near City Hall. Others, some intoxicated, hang out in front of drug stores, fast-food establishments or in local shopping areas.
Business people say they report the homeless lying in the alley to city officials, but nothing is ever done.
On social media, some commenters complain about aggressive panhandlers on the beach spoiling their family’s enjoyment of the sunset, or making them frightened to go to fast-food restaurants or convenience shops.
When asked, city officials say they are harmless; officers know all of them by name, along with their date of birth, and where they hang out.
However, after the recent assault that police say resulted in murder, people started asking city officials what they are doing to reduce the number of vagrant drunks and aggressive panhandlers who roam the city.
“I will tell you up front we are doing an awful lot. The challenges that we have are mostly revolving around the fact that homelessness is not a criminal justice problem,” Brumback said.
While the city’s first responders deal with the homeless on a regular basis, the primary issue is the lack of social services, health care services and housing.
“Those are the areas we are struggling with,” he said.
The city is working with several social service organizations to help get the homeless off the street and into treatment programs, he added.
“Homelessness is a huge issue not only in Pinellas County but in the country as a whole,” Brumback said. “Because they are indigent, fines don’t matter, and because our legal system and jail system are already overcrowded to the point of exploding, they get released before anything happens and they come immediately right back.”
The city will not be able to arrest the homeless problem away, the city manager said.
“Being in a public place is not against the law and a lot of times that public place is in front of McDonald’s or in front of Waffle House. If they are aggressive in their panhandling, or if they are impeding foot traffic, the police get called and the police remove them; they either take them to jail or they move them along. Those are the kind of things we are doing now. What we can’t do is apply our laws unfairly to people we just don’t like to look at,” he added.
Boudreau said there are a number of local ordinances that police enforce on everyone from trespassing to urinating in public, littering, aggressive panhandling and sleeping or camping in public.
Cecil Hersey, a city resident, said he would like to see the city take more aggressive positions to deal with the homeless problem.
“The murder that took place in front of McDonald’s made a lot of residents uneasy with the homeless problem here. I don’t believe enabling them to stay in Treasure Island will be beneficial for the residents,” he told commissioners.
Boudreau, who studied the homeless problem as part of his studies for his master’s degree, said the issue is a societal, not a criminal justice problem.
He noted that the Marchman Act, part of state law, allows law enforcement to take people who essentially are unable to care for themselves into protective custody.
“In cases where we deal with this demographic in our community, who drink to excess and get to the point where they are unable to stand up or function, we take them into protective custody to our designated county receiving facility, which is the Pinellas County Jail,” Boudreau said.
A Marchman Act facility, with a small number of beds, is opening in north Pinellas County to provide counseling and social services to help break the homeless cycle, he said.
“These homeless people have stories, they have history, they have families and a lot of them have been disconnected from their families. A lot of them don’t want to be where they are at, but the circumstances in their lives and the separation from those who love them, and their substance abuse, has put them where they are at,” Boudreau said.
The chief said people should not enable the homeless by giving them money or clothes, because that makes them feel they can live on the beach.
“There is only so much that we can do in law enforcement. Our police officers are doing everything they can legally. We have a 100 percent recidivism rate. It doesn’t matter how many times we arrest someone. It doesn’t matter how many times we write a ticket; it has zero impact. And it doesn’t matter whether we change our alcohol laws; it is a social problem that we need to address as a community, as a state and as a country,” the police chief said.
“It can’t be fixed with enacting more laws and more laws, and more tickets and more arrests, because it doesn’t fix or change behavior. It doesn’t fix what is broken. We’ll continue to do the very best we can do. We will do the best to keep this community safe. I believe we have a safe community here. One unfortunate incident cannot define what Treasure Island is,” the chief said.