Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Conversation with St. Pete City Council Member Amy Foster about the Homeless Part 1

The homeless problem in Pinellas County continues to grow. If you would like to look at the numbers you can go the Pinellas County Health and Community Services web site and look at the most recent surveys and reports.

The City of St. Petersburg has been at the forefront of the homeless crisis. City Council Member Amy Foster is taking a lead role in developing approaches and solutions for the homeless community.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Council Member Foster over lunch and have a Conversation about the homeless issue.

This is the first Post in a Four Post Series.

My questions are in bold.

"I began our conversation by asking Amy, "How do you like being on City Council so far?"
"I love it", Ms Foster replied, "I have decided to focus on a couple of key issues at a time so I can have laser focus on getting the job done. Of course there are always fires to put out, constituent issues, and city level issues that are happening on an ongoing basis" "The two major issues I am focusing on right now are: the homelessness issue and juvenile justice reform in St. Pete."

"What is your view of the homeless problem in the County and here in St. Pete", I asked.

Amy replied, "One of the things our Point in Time report shows as well as a need for resources is the recession impacted working class families the most." "We find that there are people who are homeless who had been top CEOs and executives and one precipitating thing happened such as not enough money in savings or something happened in their health or other things and they ended up homeless as well as the people that most folks typically think of when we talk about
homelessness-the chronically homeless with mental health and substance abuse issues."

"It really is a problem we are seeing across the board and certainly we are seeing additional homeless families and children both in St. Pete and the County."

"One of the things that often get reported in the newspaper is the perception that homelessness is concentrated here in St. Petersburg." "But if you look at the data, you will see that this is a countywide problem."

"Certainly there is a problem in the major cities, but not just here in St. Pete".

Amy Continued, "A part of the focus of last administration included the Homeless Outreach Team which has done a great job of forming relationships and trying to push people to services or send them back to family members. But in order to really address the problem, everyone has to be trained on the issue and know what to do when they encounter folks. That is why we have focused on making sure more officers are trained and someone in every unit has the expertise to handle issues." 

"The problem with homeless families has become so great the Homeless Outreach Team was having a hard time focusing on the people in Williams Park because families were taking up all of the available time-we had to adapt our practices and our human resources to address this. Also, a lot of people don’t realize that many of the people you see hanging outside of St. Vincent de Paul or Williams Park aren’t homeless people at all but people participating in criminal activities or trying to prey upon our vulnerable populations. Lots of folks are also from nearby assisted living facilities and return to them during evening hours. The Downtown Deployment Team and the Homeless Outreach Team work hand in hand to address these issues"

"Do you feel Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor has been a success?" I asked.

"Certainly there is not one organization that can handle all of the problems." "That's why we have a continuum of care here in Pinellas County." “The system is far from perfect but it is better than locking people up for being on the street when the core issue is typically a mental health issue. These resources save tax payers dollars because housing someone in jail is exponentially more expensive. We do need to make additional gains in the “housing first” philosophy. Study after study shows that we would save money if we reinvested our dollars to get folks off the street into permanent supportive housing.”

"Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor both have a number of successful out comes that show the programs transitioning people into jobs and housing. One of the things we heard from folks in interviews this summer is that they didn’t want to go to Safe Harbor. We were able to work with Safe Harbor, the Sherriff, and others to share what we learned and address some of the culture issues brought up during Marbut’s most recent visit."

"There are examples of success such as somebody who was homeless and then went to Safe Harbor, got education and did something really great, but I think there are all kinds of definitions of success"

"So some of the things you will see if you look at the outcomes from Safe Harbor are people who have been through detox 19 or 20 times finally decided they have had enough living on the street and they were able to transition into affordable housing. To me that is still success."

In the next Post Amy Foster talks about the Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's call for more funding participation from Cities, some of the biggest homeless issues, panhandling and St. Pete's Williams Park.

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