CLEARWATER — The city’s homeless coordinator told the City Council on April 15 that meal programs, paired with housing and other homeless services, have helped reduce homelessness in recent years.
Gabe Parra, Clearwater’s community development director, pointed to the city’s annual Point in Time Count to indicate how well the city’s efforts — in conjunction with other public and private homeless aid programs — have been working.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that communities receiving federal funds from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program conduct an annual count of all sheltered people in the last week of January.
Volunteers go into the streets to look in shelters, vacant cars, under bridges and in derelict buildings to count the homeless. Carrying clipboards, the volunteers ask the dispossessed their names, histories, any medications they are on, and other information to put together a picture of the itinerant and their needs.
According to Parra, Point in Time volunteers in the Clearwater area counted 199 homeless on Jan. 24, 2018, which was down from 229, the number of homeless counted in 2017. In 2016, the volunteers counted 236, Parra said.
“Let’s go back in time, year 2012, at that time we had close to 360 homeless in the downtown, the beach and the Gateway area,” Parra said. “We have also changed the culture and the perception within the city and the city employees.”
That’s also the year the city hired a homeless consultant, Dr. Robert G. Marbut Jr., to help the city address homelessness. Marbut’s program suggested the creation of a homeless committee consisting of city departments.
The departments, including the Clearwater Police Department, Solid Waste, and Parks and Recreation, “are involved in homelessness on a day to day basis,” Parra said.
If a parks employee sees a homeless person sleeping on a picnic table, for instance, he or she can direct them to a shelter or how to get in touch with counselors who can provide basic services to perhaps launch that person to recovery. In fact, city employees also carry information cards to hand to possibly homeless or itinerant individuals that list those state and local services and where to get them.
The Clearwater Police Department also has a dual role to play, Parra said. Pinellas Safe Harbor jail diversion emergency shelter program gives officers an alternative to arrest. The program has 470 beds for people caught sleeping on the street. Last year alone, Safe Harbor served 378,225 meals. Meanwhile, street outreach teams have helped place 254 homeless individuals in the past year.
When police respond to domestic violence calls (there were 3,800 calls to the violence hotline last year) they can refer victims to Grace House, which provided safe housing for 451 women, 148 of which were from Clearwater.
“Police have done a fantastic job related to homelessness,” Parra told the council.
Police officers who patrol the streets on foot have been arresting people carrying or selling Spice, which is inexpensive and plentiful among the indigent population, Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter told the Beacon.