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Thursday, Aug 21, 2014

Pinellas sheriff suspends homeless diversion program

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CLEARWATER — A pilot program designed to deal with those members of the homeless population that repeatedly balk at getting help for their addictions was suspended indefinitely last week.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri sent an email to all the county’s police chiefs, informing them of the change.

The point of the program was to stop homeless people from repeatedly getting transported to the Pinellas County Jail for minor infractions, such as drinking from open containers. Typically, such people would be released in a matter of hours and return to the streets.

Under the program, however, those hardcore homeless people were often incarcerated for days until they agreed to go to Safe Harbor, the county’s homeless shelter, where, hypothetically, they would be directed into programs dealing with their addictions and start living somewhere other than the streets.

Last month, after the pilot program came to an end, Gualtieri said 93 of the 155 homeless people who were diverted into the program eventually relented and agreed to go to Safe Harbor. But at least a handful of those 93 ended up getting arrested again on open-container violations, according to arrest records.

“We announced this program as a 90-day trial program back in July, and while it has been successful, we are suspending the program to consider additional options for addressing the most chronic members of the Pinellas County homeless population,” Gualtieri said in his email.

Gualtieri instructed the police chiefs to tell their officers not to write “homeless diversion” on a homeless person’s arrest affidavit anymore. The designation usually meant a homeless person would spend some time in jail if they didn’t agree to go to Safe Harbor.

Both Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Thomas McGrady, chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, praised the program Friday, saying it did a good job of identifying those members of the homeless population who agreed to services — and those who did not.

McCabe said authorities were not violating homeless people’s constitutional rights by keeping them jailed longer than they would an average person arrested on the same charges because those person were diverted into the program only after a string of prior arrests.

McCabe also said the sheriff could not continue devoting resources to the program.

To put the program into effect, the sheriff had to open up part of a wing at the jail that had been closed for roughly 40 homeless people. Two detention deputies had to supervise the homeless inmates around the clock, and case manager and counselors were constantly shuttling back and forth between Safe Harbor and the jail to encourage the detainees to agree to help.

“It became a drain,” Gualtieri said. “We didn’t have the staffing to continue it permanently.”

Still, roughly 30 people, out of the 155 diverted into the program, have been identified as a subset of the homeless population that is the most resistant to help, said Gualtieri, who called them “the chronic of the chronics.” Authorities may reinstitute a version of the pilot program to deal with them, he said.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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