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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Editorials

A promising homeless strategy

Published:

The Pinellas Safe Harbor program offers a choice to homeless people who get arrested for nuisance offenses in Pinellas County.

Rather than being jailed, they can choose to be taken to the Safe Harbor facility operated by the Sheriff's Office in Clearwater, where housing, food and counseling await.

But what happens when someone chooses jail instead?

Until this week, that meant a revolving door. A person jailed in the morning could be released without bail that afternoon, free to commit the same infractions, which commonly include public alcohol consumption or public urination.

A pilot program introduced by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri this week is meant to stop that revolving door. We hope it brings the desired results. If it does, it may merit adoption in other communities that struggle to deal with homeless who flout the law.

Called the Chronically Homeless Jail Diversion and Intervention program, it targets a homeless population that numbers about 50 and that suffers from substance addiction or mental illness. They choose jail over Safe Harbor, perhaps because of the required counseling services.

That refusal means a certain release from jail after a short stay and an almost certain failure to appear in court on those charges. When that happens, their next arrest will result in an extended jail stay.

Sheriff Gualtieri wants to break that cycle. He thinks the chronically homeless are misinformed about what happens at Safe Harbor, or unaware of the help being offered.

The new diversion program will bring Safe Harbor counselors and counselors with the Public Defender's office into the jail to give the chronically homeless information about Safe Harbor and to let them know they have a stark choice: stay in the jail for an indefinite number of days or agree to stay at Safe Harbor.

Granted, persuading some of the chronically homeless to stay at Safe Harbor might prove impossible.

But getting even a portion of those being targeted to agree to leave the jail would benefit those homeless and the communities where they commit their crimes.

It also might save taxpayers money.

It costs $13 a day to house a homeless person at Safe Harbor. The cost to house someone at the jail is $105 a day.

Diverting the chronic homeless to Safe Harbor, rather than release them from the jail and have them face a jail sentence upon their re-arrest, will almost certainly save money in the long run.

The program has the support of Public Defender Bob Dillinger, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, and Chief Judge Thomas McGrady, as well as mayors and police chiefs.

Gualtieri's thoughtful approach to dealing with the chronic homeless problem should be applauded. It's one of several recent efforts by government to confront this persistent problem. On Monday, state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Republican from South Pasadena, announced a public service campaign that will encourage people to donate to homeless programs rather than give money directly to people who solicit them on the streets. The money does far more good in the hands of professional organizations that provide services aimed at getting the homeless back on their feet.

And earlier this month, the city of Tampa gave preliminary approval to measures that empower police to crack down on aggressive panhandling and that ban the homeless from turning public parks into encampments.

There is no simple solution to the homeless problem. But that doesn't mean government should throw up its hands. The problem should be managed as effectively as possible.

These new efforts are admirable attempts to achieve that goal.

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