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Pinellas chronic homeless program nabs its first targets

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Published:   |   Updated: July 14, 2013 at 06:00 PM

ST. PETERSBURG - Peter Landry, a 50-year-old homeless man who is blind in one eye and suffers from lung disease, was drinking a beer with his girlfriend near a gas station Wednesday afternoon when St. Petersburg police arrested him.

It was the twelfth time this year Landry was carted off to the Pinellas County Jail on a public drinking charge. In the vast majority of the other cases, he was released the following day after pleading guilty or no contest.

Not this time.

This time, Landry was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

"I kind of lost it," Landry said Friday during an interview at the jail.

Landry didn't know it, but he is one of the first members of the county's chronic homeless population to unwittingly take part in an unusual social experiment.

Instead of immediately releasing homeless people who routinely cycle through the criminal justice system, county judges are opting to keep them in jail in hopes they agree to go to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's homeless shelter, and go through a program designed to get them permanently off the streets.

Since the program went into effect on July 8, St. Petersburg police have arrested several of its so-called chronic offenders. The department has put together a list of 22 such offenders. Landry is at the top of it.

No. 2 on the list is Linda Sue Wright, 53, Landry's girlfriend, who was arrested with him.

As of Friday afternoon, 12 homeless people had been arrested in the program and only one agreed to go to Safe Harbor, according to Cecilia Barreda, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Landry said he doesn't remember the county judge mentioning Safe Harbor as an option at his arraignment but he concedes she might have. Detention deputies at the jail later told him that was the case.

He was also asked whether he would like to see a counselor, as part of the proposed transition.

"I said, 'No, I don't want to see a counselor,' " Landry said. "A counselor isn't going to do anything for me. When I get out ... I'm going to go out and get another beer.

"I'm in my own stubborn way."

"It may work for other people," Landry said. "They quit drinking and get a job and everything, get an apartment. That's good."

The former construction worker is blind in one eye, and his vision in the other is blurry; so the likelihood of him getting a job is slim.

"When are you going to be able to swing a hammer at a nail?" he said. "I couldn't see it."

He'd rather return to the streets with Wright. She warns him when there's a curb ahead, and he likes sleeping next to her outside.

Michael Smigelski, on the other hand, is willing to give Safe Harbor a shot.

Smigelsi, 52, is also on the St. Petersburg Police Department's chronic offender list. He was arrested Thursday on a misdemeanor charge of drinking from an open container, after he was spotted drinking a beer at a PSTA bus stop.

Unlike Landry, Smigelski wasn't given an opportunity Friday to plead to the charge and be sentenced. Rather, his arraignment was postponed for a week.

"They said they'd look into this Safe Harbor thing and maybe have someone talk to me," Smigelski said during an interview at the jail Friday.

"Yeah, I'd go. I've fallen into a rut where I'm not getting as much work done as I should."

"It just seems every times I'm turning around I'm getting arrested for an open container," he said.

"I used to be a pretty productive fella."

Still, Smigelski said, he has a problem with being held a week on a charge that is typically disposed of quickly.

"I definitely think it's wrong waiting a week to go back to court," he said. "I think it's going to quite an extreme."

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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