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At the Table: Homelessness in St. Pete

Mark Parker



A homeless person sleeps on a bench during holiday events at St. Petersburg's waterfront parks. Photo by Mark Parker.

Where are we going, and how will get there? As a community, we’re constantly seeking the optimal balance between the needs we have and the needs we serve. And through discussion, we arrive at solutions. The At the Table series is for sharing our intentions, ideas and experiences to help us align and work better – together.

Part Two in a series

That there are no simple solutions for complex problems is a common refrain, and elected officials often repeat some variance of the statement when discussing homelessness.

Every city in America has a portion of its population that goes without shelter for many reasons. While the issue has seemingly grown in recent years alongside St. Petersburg’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, Mayor Ken Welch told the Catalyst he has seen worse – yet remains concerned.

As a county commissioner in 2006, he was the first chair of what became known as the Homeless Leadership Board. Out of the coalition came Pinellas Hope, a 10-acre clearwater facility that initially provided 250 tents for emergency shelter. Since its inception in 2007, officials have added 156 subsidized efficiency apartments and transformed several shipping containers into housing units with three rooms.

Pinellas Safe Harbor, also in Clearwater, opened in 2011. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office operates that facility for the unsheltered caught in the criminal justice system, and it can accommodate up to 470 people.

“So, we’ve got a good infrastructure,” said Welch. “The issue is, you will never not see homeless people because folks still gravitate towards warm weather. But want you want, is to have that continuum of care.”

He added that prevention, like committing funding to help those behind on rent, is also critical. However, resources are limited, and the problem is extensive.

St. Petersburg’s Emergency Rental Assistance program exhausted its American Rescue Plan Act funding in about a month last year.

Welch remains committed to increasing the city’s affordable stock and said local officials discussed rezoning measures. He believes current initiatives help address the issue but said “we need to broaden that capacity.”

From left: Mike Sutton, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity; Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders; Mayor Ken Welch; Council Chair Gina Driscoll; Bob Mayer, president of Exact; Alfredo Anthony, board chair of Habitat Immediate Past; and Ernie Dubose, CEO of DuCon Construction. City leaders hope to expand affordable homeownership initiatives, like the Shell Dash Townhomes (pictured).

Councilmember Ed Montanari echoed those sentiments. He noted Pinellas Hope – funded by the county and city governments – is a valuable resource. However, he said, “there is always more to do.”

“I’m always trying to find and identify innovative ways to solve complex problems,” said Montanari. “This is one of those tough ones that seems like we make a little bit of progress in some areas, and then things start sliding backward. There’s not an easy answer to it.”

Councilmember Gina Driscoll explained that hastening rezoning initiatives on industrial properties is one attainable solution. City officials received statewide praise for becoming the first to utilize legislation that allows municipalities to create affordable housing in otherwise prohibited areas.

The council adopted the measure in September 2021, and approved transforming an old lumber yard into 264 affordable and workforce units in April 2022. The project has yet to break ground and remains the only one brought before council members.

“It’s an opportunity that is waiting for permission,” said Driscoll. “And the sooner we can make those kinds of changes, the sooner we can pick up the pace on the amount of housing that we’re building out there.”

Montanari admitted that he and other elected officials could spend more time talking to the unsheltered and earning their trust. Despite juggling multiple commitments, he said understanding the problems constituents face is part of the job. Montanari added that the homeless deserve the same attention as anyone else.

Like many city leaders, Montanari noted the lack of available land in St. Petersburg exacerbates the problem. The city council is trying to overcome that impediment by incentivizing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as garage apartments or mother-in-law suites.

Driscoll said recent advancements have led to an influx of new ADU permits. City officials are now offering financing and rebate programs, a streamlined permitting process and a dedicated website with preapproved designs to spur construction.

She said local leadership has discussed requiring owners to have a relocation plan for tenants before selling the property to developers. An unsheltered individual previously noted that new construction leads to people living on the street – even those with an income – as they can’t afford soaring rents and move-in costs.

A homeless person occupies a bench in St. Petersburg’s Edge District.

However, Driscoll said the talks “didn’t go very far” because “there simply isn’t enough low-income housing” to rehouse people. While she would like to shorten years-long housing wait lists, the barrier remains the same.

“The problem is that we’re behind,” said Driscoll. “We went a long time without a lot of housing being built, period. And now we find ourselves in a situation where we’re playing catch up.”

Overall, she believes city leaders are doing their part by dedicating available resources to addressing homelessness. Driscoll noted the police department’s Police Assisting the Homeless (PATH) unit has significantly grown in recent years, as has funding for organizations like St. Vincent de Paul Cares, which provides a myriad of homeless services.

She added that city officials support the St. Petersburg Housing Authority’s efforts to mitigate the issue and enjoy a “great relationship” with its leaders.

“The support that we’re giving to address the different facets of this problem is something I’m quite proud of,” said Driscoll. “Is there more to do? Absolutely … but we’re going to keep working at it.”

Next: Council Vice-Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders, a longtime advocate, talks homelessness and her thoughts on solutions. 

Read Part One here

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  1. Avatar


    January 21, 2023at7:02 am

    I work in behavior health. Many people but not all who are homeless have mental health issues and many don’t have families or advocates to help them find a place to live. It makes me sad that we as a community don’t see them as valuable human beings. They did not ask for mental health issues… some are vets with ptsd… it seems that making money and building expensive apartments and condos is a higher priority than helping those who are truly in need. It doesn’t seem to be a priority. People who are working here can barely afford to live here. Which can lead to more homelessness. I’m in the trenches and see this is a crisis…. I hope and pray all of our community wakes up to see more needs to be done! Especially for those who can not advocate for themselves. It takes a village… and a large population of humans in our village need help.

  2. Avatar


    January 21, 2023at10:18 am

    Stop punishing working people. Stop rewarding people who don’t work. Stop incentivizing homelessness!

    St Petersburg is one of the best places to live in the United States and you’re supposed that a fraction of people can’t afford to live here? I will personally buy you a bus ticket to where I grew up. We will see what tune you’re whistling then.

    The word for punishing working people is “perversion”. It’s a corruption of a functioning society.

  3. Avatar

    Lauren Chehouri

    January 21, 2023at6:49 pm


    the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.
    “a scandalous perversion of the law”

    As a one time working homeless…pervert?? I have to wonder if there’s room on your pedestal? Not all homeless are without jobs. Additionally, are you saying only the higher income elite should be able to live in St.Petersburg?
    I was born and raised and yes..(don’t fall out) educated in St.Petersburg. Since corporations and the wealthy are buying out any chance for the middle class to buy a piece of the American dream, and ridiculous rent rates it is quite easy to become homeless here. I have applied for assistance before and I must have missed the section that said, by accepting this grant you hereby agree to punish the working class and,to maintain a lazy lifestyle,to maintain the image that ignorant elitists have in their closed mind.
    To say offering incentives for creating rental properties is perverse,by punishing the working class is just so ridiculous I am about to give myself whiplash from shaking my head.
    Every program to assist with housing requires so documentation of work, bills, and everything else to insure that when a person receives that assistance it will be for the long term. It requires a lot of self initiative and responsibility..and EMPLOMENT!.
    It’s sad that I can’t reside in the city I was born in,grew up in, work in, have been homeless in thanks in part to people who think like you.
    Just a side note if you came here 20 years ago you would have probably run like your pants were on fire. Have an enlightening day!

  4. Avatar


    January 22, 2023at10:52 am

    Hi Lauren. Incentives are laws.

  5. Avatar

    Jared Sykes

    January 22, 2023at11:08 pm

    We need solutions NOW not years from now. Nothing referenced in this article is going to resolve this problem. While we do need affordable housing for working class, low income people we also need family shelters and better managed shelters for single adults. Who can possibly afford a $1500/month apartment on a minimum wage salary or frankly even $15 an hour salary. We have St. Vincent de Paul which is always full and has maybe 6 family beds. We have Salvation Army which is always full. We have Pinellas Hope that uses a lottery system in which the homeless have to show up around 7 am on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning and hope their name is called. I guess that’s why it’s called Pinellas Hope. I understand the demand is greater than the supply of beds but it’s cruel to make a homeless person hop on a bus to get there week after week hoping their name is drawn in their lottery. We have Safe Harbor which does not accept families and folks have to sleep outside initially when they arrive in Pod 6. We have Homeless Empowerment Program in Clearwater that generally only seems to take vets if they’re lucky. There are no vacant family beds whatsoever in this county. Homeless families have to be relocated or find a shelter somewhere outside of Pinellas. It’s my humble opinion that city leaders need to collaborate with non profits and business leaders to create additional family shelters space. Find a vacant building and repurpose it for family shelters beds then hire staff to manage it with the long term goal of getting families into affordable housing either here or elsewhere. Seek federal funding for it. I doubt there is much state funding for the homeless in this red state. Work with and fund non profits to provide additional supported housing beds for the mentally ill. Schizophrenia is an epidemic here and the number of mentally ill on the streets is frightening. Do something to stop the wanton raising of rents in Pinellas as salaries are not raising with the rents. I’m actually ashamed to live in a city that does not take care of it’s people. I guess I can expect no less in a state where the expectation is for folks to move or pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get 2 or 3 jobs to afford an apartment or take in 2 or 3 roommates. That attitude will not fix this problem and the number of homeless on the streets will continue to rise exponentially. Do something elected officials or face the prospect of not getting re-elected certainly by me

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