LARGO - So far this year, Omar Manthey, a 33-year-old homeless man, has been in and out of the Pinellas County Jail seven times, more often than not because he was caught drinking a can of beer on the streets of St. Petersburg.
One of his more recent arrests was on the morning of June 5. Before he was taken into custody, Manthey told a St. Petersburg police officer he had just been released from the jail for the same infraction, according to a police report.
That might not happen the next time Manthey is found with beer in public.
Beginning today, law enforcement agencies throughout Pinellas County will begin participating in a program designed to stop homeless people from repeatedly returning to the jail on minor charges.
These are the so-called "chronics," homeless people with substantial substance abuse or mental health issues who refuse to take advantage of the services at Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county homeless shelter that opened in 2011.
Many say they prefer the jail, where they can often spend a few hours before returning to the streets. That's the case with Manthey who, according to the June 5 police report, "has been taken to Pinellas Safe Harbor numerous times and refuses to participate in the program."
Now, police officers and sheriff's deputies will take a homeless person who refuses services to the jail, writing the phrase, "homeless diversion" on the person's arrest affidavit. Those with that designation will remain at the jail until they agree to be transferred to Safe Harbor and get help.
"Inmates booked with this designation will not be released on their own recognizance (ROR) and will be housed in a separate housing unit where PSH [Pinellas Safe Harbor] and/or Public Defender counselors will meet with them daily in an effort to transfer them out of the jail and to PSH [Pinellas Safe Harbor]," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wrote in a June 18 letter to area police chiefs.
"The goal of this program is to encourage and provide critical services to the most at-risk segment of our homeless population, de-incentivize incarceration as an option to circumvent direct services, and to break the cycle of chronic homelessness," he wrote.
In an interview, Gualtieri declined to say how long authorities could jail a homeless person who continues to refuse services but who doesn't have enough money to meet bail.
"We'll have to deal with it as we go," the sheriff said. "You are asking for an answer to an unanswerable question."
The Chronically Homeless Jail Diversion and Intervention program is expected to operate on a trial basis for 90 days. Roughly 40 beds will be reserved, Gualtieri said. The program has a lot of support in Pinellas County, including from Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, Chief Judge Thomas McGrady, and all the police chiefs and mayors, Gualtieri said.
Pinellas Safe Harbor was originally set up as a jail diversionary program, and it has had some success, with some of its homeless charges taking advantage of programs with an eye toward finding permanent housing, Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri's trial program is targeting two subgroups of homeless people: those who are misinformed about Safe Harbor and those who just aren't interested.
"They'd rather go to jail," the sheriff said. "The reason for it is ... when they go to Safe Harbor, there are expectations.
"You just don't go to hang out. They are required to participate in counseling ... and do things other than sitting on a cot watching TV.
"They say, 'I want to go to jail, spend a few days ... sit and do whatever I want and go back on the street," the sheriff said.
The trouble with that attitude is that, eventually, the charges increase in number and severity, the sheriff said,
If, say, a homeless person is released on his own recognizance after a charge such as urinating in public and then fails to appear in court, an arrest warrant is issued. In time, the charges stack up, bail increases, and the person sits in jail for a long time, often until his case winds through the judicial system.
"The County Court judges have ... noticed these repeat offenders who do not avail themselves of services and who they end up sentencing to county jail time because of their repeated violations," Gualtieri wrote in the June letter. "The result has been an unnecessary and unacceptable increase in the jail population."
The pilot program "isn't intended to keep people in jail, it's intended to get them out," Gualtieri said in his interview. "We just want to get them where they belong ... Safe Harbor."
"It's a matter of trying to educate these people," the sheriff said.
"They hold the key."