CLEARWATER - State Rep. Kathleen Peters hopes a nascent marketing strategy along the lines of the antitobacco Truth campaign will change the way people see homelessness.
She enlisted students from the Art Institute of Tampa to develop a campaign that likely will urge the public to stop giving money, food and other materials directly to homeless people. Instead, people will be encouraged to support social service providers that assist the homeless, such as the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter in Clearwater, where the new campaign was announced today.
Four students will work on the project's initial 11-week phase, which begins Tuesday. Details, including the project's overall message, are still being developed.
"It could be ... 'Do not give to panhandlers, give to programs,' because panhandlers often are not homeless," said Peters, a Republican from South Pasadena. "It could be 'Do not feed in parks and parking lots. Feed in our programs. They truly know how to get someone who's homeless the mental health services they need, the health services they need, the job training they need.' "
Today, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which runs the Safe Harbor shelter, and other county law enforcement agencies began a diversionary program aimed at the hardcore homeless - those who cycle in and out of jail on minor charges and shun efforts to get them into supportive programs. Under the new program, people will have to agree to go to the Safe Harbor shelter or stay in jail indefinitely. The aim is to get people into treatment or job-training programs.
Doing so will help homeless people get on their feet while saving taxpayers money: A day in jail costs $105, compared to $13 a night at the shelter.
"The criminal justice system should not be used as a dumping ground for our social problems," said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The new marketing campaign could go hand-in-hand with the diversion policy, he said.
"People think they're doing a good thing when they feed or when they give money to panhandlers, but they're really not because they're enabling behavior that a lot times ends up with people getting arrested and going to jail, so we don't want that," he said.
It'll be up to the students to sift through the statistics regarding the makeup of the more than 6,000 homeless people in Pinellas County, 38 percent of which are children, according to preliminary results of a one-day homeless survey conducted in January. They'll develop their message from their findings, as well as a marketing strategy, which could include social media, billboards or public service announcements. For now, the campaign's goals remain abstract.
"I think initially what happens is public awareness," said Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board Chair Carlen Peterson. "When I say to someone,'Describe homeless,' it's usually the guy or gal under the bridge. That is certainly a percentage of the population, no doubt. However, the greatest percentage are the families and children, and single moms and kids, which to me is a frightening statistic."
Showing the public that most homeless are families that tend to remain out of sight, and not stereotypical panhandlers, could change the way people try to help, she said.
This morning, St. Petersburg police made the first arrest under the homeless diversion program. William Wayne Tyler, who has four aliases and two different dates of birth, was taken into custody after he was seen drinking a can of beer while sitting in a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus shelter at Williams Park downtown, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
Tyler has been in and out of the Pinellas County Jail more than a dozen times since the beginning of the year, on charges including disorderly conduct, drinking from an open container and panhandling.
Tribune reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.