ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Four years ago, St. Petersburg's struggles with some of the most rampant homelessness in the country reached a crescendo when police officers with box cutters slashed up a makeshift tent city near downtown. The raid become a national public-relations disaster and didn't make a dent in the growing crowd of people living on the city's streets.
Enter Robert Marbut, a former San Antonio councilman and White House staffer who came to town last fall wielding what he likes to call a "velvet hammer." City leaders hired the $5,300-a-month consultant after buying into his idea of forcing the homeless off the streets but taking them someplace better — a sprawling, one-stop complex where people could be housed, fed and start to get help with mental illness, addictions and the other problems that put them on the streets.
More than a just big shelter, it would be a "transformational campus" like the one Marbut helped establish in San Antonio.
St. Petersburg started getting tough last year with a panhandling ban and talk of limiting the frequent public feedings downtown thrown by churches and charities that had become a magnet for the homeless, a move that has drawn grumbling from those groups. Those who get caught sleeping on the sidewalk, having an open beer or relieving themselves in public have been getting a free ride to the new, 500-bed Pinellas Safe Harbor, instead of a trip to jail.
This summer, the once-ubiquitous crowd of homeless hanging out and sleeping all over downtown streets dwindled to just a handful.
Marbut, who says he has studied approaches to homelessness in hundreds of U.S. cities over the last four years , said St. Petersburg had one of the worst and most visible problems he'd ever seen. That was thanks to the poor Florida economy, a wave of discharged military veterans with mental health issues, easy access to prescription painkillers through "pill mill" pain clinics and other factors.
Plus, this city — like many in the South — had a reputation as an easy place to live on the streets, with gentle winters and an abundance of help agencies and public feeding programs.
"What was incredible to me was how much money was being spent, how much energy was being spent and there was no success," said Marbut, a one-time aide to President George H. W. Bush.
The 2007 tent city raid — police said crime and open fires had made it unsafe — became a chamber of commerce nightmare after a cellphone video of officers slashing tents showed up on YouTube and TV. A faith-based shelter with a sanctioned tent city opened afterward and quickly filled to its 250-bed capacity.
Stench of urine
Even as the city worked aggressively to build cosmopolitan credibility with new world-class museums and trendy restaurants, homeless people were still everywhere on the streets of the low-rise, waterfront downtown. Visitors couldn't walk around without dodging panhandlers and stepping over street people.
Businesses complained. Politicians fretted. The city sanitation department had to spray sidewalks with disinfectant to cover the stench of urine.
"We as a county were just dealing with it, we weren't solving it," said Bill Foster, the first-term mayor of the city of 250,000 who in his election campaign last year promised to tackle the crisis.
Sleeping homeless people once lined the sidewalk every night in front of The Princess Martha, a grand 1920s-era apartment building for seniors, leaving litter and human waste that had to be cleaned up by a staff member every morning. Residents avoided the park across the street.
All that's changed.
"It's night and day," executive director David Nutt said by telephone one recent morning. "I'm sitting in my office right now looking across at the park, and it's gone from hundreds lying around on the grass to a half-dozen."
Marbut was the architect and first CEO of a similar shelter compound in San Antonio called Haven for Hope. The 22-acre, $100 million complex with room for about 1,000 was built with private and public money. It opened last year and is filled to capacity.
Haven for Hope's finances are an issue — some of the nonprofit charities involved are scrambling to raise money for operations now that state and federal funding is being reduced.
Critics there and in St. Petersburg also question Marbut's firm contention that the time-honored tradition of do-gooders bringing food, blankets and other handouts to people on the street is enabling and has to stop. Instead, he asks churches and other faith-based groups to get involved at the shelter.
Converted bus barn
St. Petersburg officials who visited the San Antonio shelter last year were impressed and pushed hard to hire Marbut to shepherd the opening of Safe Harbor, a converted bus barn next to the county jail north of the city.
It's operated with grant money and contributions from a broad coalition of municipalities and state and local agencies. It's run by the sheriff's office, with the cooperation of the prosecutor's and public defender's offices.
"If you give somebody an alternative and hook them up with services, maybe you get some folks who change their ways, get a job even," said Bernie McCabe, the chief prosecutor for the region that includes St. Petersburg. "We weren't accomplishing anything before except moving some nuisances around."
The idea is to get them in to clean up, sleep, get plugged into services and assigned to a master caseworker who monitors their progress. A rewards system allows them to improve their station within the shelter as they work toward permanent housing and, in many cases, employment.
In the first six months of the year, Safe Harbor signed in 1,350 different people, according to Marbut's report to the city council. More than 300 moved out to some sort of more permanent housing or to another facility for specialized services.
Some stayed one night. Some have been there for months. But the focus is always on attacking the causes of homelessness and trying to move the residents forward. Violence is the only thing that can get them permanently kicked out.
Working to earn privileges
Those who break the rules are banished to mats in the outside courtyard with a chance to earn their way back inside to the air-conditioned living areas. Those who continue to behave properly can move up from mats on the floor to bunk beds and more privileges. There is a curfew, but residents can come and go as they please during the day. About a third have jobs.
"They put you on a schedule. I really, really needed that," said 29-year-old Nicole Gaskins, who was among the first residents of Safe Harbor. She stayed for about five months and credits the place with getting her into treatment for an addiction to prescription painkillers. She's since managed to get a telemarketing job and move into an apartment.
"There is no sleeping all day long," she said. "They make you get up first thing in the morning. If you want to eat, you better get out of bed. You got to 'do' to survive. A lot of us who have been living out here (on the streets) for a while, we don't have that. We don't have guidelines or boundaries."
Critics of Safe Harbor say that forcing people to go to one location for services amounts to treating them like animals and accomplishes little more than getting them off the streets so the public can't see them.
And Marbut has gotten some push-back from local nonprofits who feel like they are being elbowed out after all these years. Homeless advocates say there is still a lack of transitional and affordable housing for people who manage to get out of the shelters. And there needs to be more services to help the increasing number of families with children who are victims of Florida's depressed economy.
"I think (Safe Harbor) is part of the answer, I don't think it's the whole answer," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, a group that develops policy and determines how federal grant money is distributed countywide. "We can't force people to become better. We can only show them how much better their lives could be if they made some changes."
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