LARGO — For more than a year and a half, members of city staff and the police department have sought answers on how to identify and help Largo’s homeless population.
What they’ve learned is there are no easy answers. But that doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying or increasing their focus on homeless issues through outreach programs and data collection.
And that’s what members of the city’s Homeless Working Group told city commissioners Nov. 12 during a work session at City Hall.
The effort started in April 2018, when City Manager Henry Schubert convened a team comprised of staff from Community Development, the police and fire departments, Housing, Community Standards, Recreation, Parks and Arts, and the library to define the problem.
“Commission and staff had been receiving feedback from the community that there was a problem with homelessness, but we really didn’t have a lot of information about what that problem was, and I think it depends on who you ask,” Community Development Director Carol Stricklin said.
The group discussed the problems and approaches to addressing the issues, which included the emergency service demand, impacts to the business community, and public perception.
Stricklin said the next step included discussions with the Homeless Leadership Board, outreach at Central Park and Northeast Park and visits to Pinellas Safe Harbor, an emergency homeless shelter and jail diversion program operated by the Sheriff’s Office on 49th Street in unincorporated Pinellas County, but within Largo’s fire district.
Members of Largo police and RPA also began to collect data by recording the number of encounters they had with the homeless.
Through Nov. 12, that number was 2,303 for the year, according to Major Joseph Coyle.
“We’re roughly averaging about 200, 250 per month,” he said.
That number, however, includes repeat encounters with the same people, so Arrow Woodard of the Housing Division said the city is working on a way to find out how many individuals the number represents.
Safe Harbor concerns
According to the Point-in-Time data report, which is a one-day census of the homeless population in Pinellas County, the number of respondents who indicated they mainly stay in Largo increased from 39 individuals in 2018 to 42 in 2019.
Largo police and fire department service call data indicate that number is likely much higher.
For instance, in 2016, police responded to 2,179 homeless-related calls in Largo and the fire department responded to 583 calls to Safe Harbor.
The shelter’s effect on the surrounding community is a concern for Mayor Woody Brown.
“There’s a lot of people that are brought to Safe Harbor from other communities that end up homeless residents of east Largo, and that’s a big challenge,” he said. “It’s a challenge for me to continue to kind of mentally support this facility that’s a jail diversion program that’s causing a real tax on our resources in the east side of town.”
Brown said he was curious to know how many of the staff’s homeless encounters were within walking distance of the shelter.
“It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be compassionate to those folks and try to get them help, but I also think that it might make sense to encourage other communities to try to help them on their end before bringing them to Safe Harbor,” he said.
Getting them help and on their feet is the goal, Stricklin said, so the city plans to expand its approach, which traditionally has been through public safety response and funding through the housing division.
“What we’re talking about for the upcoming year is convening more of a tactical working group of city staff to really start to dig into understanding how we can more strategically direct our resources to address the impacts of homelessness on our community,” she said. “That will include better data collection and better data analysis.”
That data should help them find out where they congregate and why.
“One of the interesting points that came out of the Point-in-Time actually was that at the Roosevelt (Boulevard), 49th Street area, people said they mainly stayed at Safe Harbor the night before,” Woodard said. “But at Ulmerton (Road) and 66th (Street), they predominantly stayed outside in places not fit for human habitation.”
Stricklin added that the city will join a countywide initiative by paying $28,000 for a part-time homeless outreach team that should launch in April.
“This is an existing program that’s operational in several cities as well as unincorporated Pinellas County where essentially a counselor is paired with either a sheriff’s deputy or police officer to provide homeless outreach services in an attempt to connect those homeless individuals with services,” she said.
Commissioner John Carroll, a former Largo police chief, said he just wanted to make sure they are directing those resources toward the right kind of people.
“Not to be insensitive or unsympathetic to the situation, but there’s a difference to me between someone being a public nuisance committing what could be categorized as crimes and people who actually need services,” he said, referring to individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems.
Woodard said another cost-effective method is homeless diversion, which is working with someone to help resolve or prevent homelessness.
She said members of the police and Housing and Community Standards departments were all trained in it.
“Community Standards has really, really taken this to heart, and they are really helping people self-resolve if they are in a situation that’s unsafe for them to live in to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place,” she said.
Brown praised the approach of attacking the problem from multiple angles.
“I think it’s great that we’re looking at it from an interdepartmental standpoint,” he said. “The police department can’t help these people get housing necessarily, but our housing department can.”