Where are we going, and how will we 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 Three in a series
For Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders, homelessness in St. Petersburg is not just a critical issue – it’s a state of emergency.
The concept is not unique. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency over the homeless crisis in December. Her first official act as the city’s leader gives her the authority to expedite shelter openings and other initiatives.
Figgs-Sanders is intimately familiar with the problem through lived experiences and community work. She relayed that those unaffected by the issue don’t possess the same sense of urgency as the families sleeping in cars or at run-down motels.
“Those of us with the authority and the resources to make a decision – why do we have to keep kicking the can down the road?” asked Figgs-Sanders. “Make a decision; prioritize it. We find the money for everything else.”
In addition to her role in City Hall, Figg-Sanders now serves as vice-chair for the Pinellas Continuum of Care (CoC) Program. The group works closely with the Homeless Leadership Alliance, and she said community organizations are making the most out of available resources.
However, Figgs-Sanders said a preponderance of “loopholes” leads to unsheltered people getting caught in the system without receiving much-needed services. She explained that those barriers often result from bureaucratic red tape rather than a lack of organizational effort.
According to the New York Post, Bass said an “effective strategy against homelessness cannot be run like just any other city function” when she declared the state of emergency.
While Figgs-Sanders believes city officials can do better at creating a proactive plan for residents displaced by development, she noted they could not block private sales. She added that there are mandated requirements for owners receiving federal subsidies to relocate low-income families.
She said it “all depends on how you’re being housed” and spoke about identifying and closing those gaps at a recent CoC meeting. Figgs-Sanders also noted the St. Petersburg Housing Authority recently opened a waitlist and received thousands of applications for hundreds of openings.
As such, she said it would likely be years before the waitlist reopens.
“All I could do is sit there and shake my head,” said Figgs-Sanders. “But you have to look at all the limitations we have.”
Like many elected officials, she said a lack of land in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County significantly exacerbates the problem and limits solutions. She also noted that building affordable housing is not profitable for developers, something local leadership must strive to overcome.
In addition, Figgs-Sanders said that simply defining what constitutes affordable or workforce housing is a challenge. She called the terms broad generalizations and said regardless of the moniker used, teachers, first responders and other hard-working people still cannot afford or qualify for the units.
“And then we’re supporting a lot of these developers – you have 150 units, and five or six of them are considered workforce housing,” said Figgs-Sanders. “How is that going to help us provide a surplus? We’re never going to be able to catch up.”
She believes accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and tiny homes could provide a solution. The city council recently voted to incentivize the construction of new ADUs, implemented rezoning initiatives and created a dedicated website with pre-approved design plans.
Figgs-Sanders said city officials should welcome any innovative solutions. She also noted they need to work closely with the city’s homeless to differentiate between those actively seeking shelter and people that prefer life on the street.
More than anything, she stressed the need to move quickly, something oft-repeated during city council meetings.
“We say, ‘well, we’ll just do it at the next meeting,’” Figgs-Sanders reiterated. “When is the next meeting? Seven days – 14 days – 30 days? How many of us had to live on the street for even 30 minutes? We have no concept of time because we’re not impacted.”
She relayed her incomprehension of some people not recognizing the value of “housing first.” That is where local officials ensure families and individuals have a place to stay before addressing underlying circumstances.
As Mayor Ken Welch mentioned in a previous interview, Figgs-Sanders noted lower-middle-class families are a paycheck away from becoming homeless. She added that even high earners are just a stock market crash from losing everything.
She said there is no recipe for homelessness, “it just looks different for certain people.”
Figgs-Sanders said it takes “hustle” and “grit” to overcome homelessness, and people will show if they have those traits once they receive housing. She believes a housing-first philosophy catalyzes the unsheltered to overcome their circumstances.
She explained that the next step is ensuring there are opportunities available. While everyone needs a job, Figgs-Sanders noted that criminal records from childhood mistakes often impede someone’s growth.
She said local leaders must take a holistic approach to combat homelessness, and believes the people of St. Petersburg can accomplish anything with enough focus.
“It’s about priorities, and I tell people that all the time,” said Figgs-Sanders. “What we want to work, we make it work. It’s unfortunate that you have to jump through the hoops to get it done, but I’m willing to do what needs to be done to make a difference.”
Next: Amy Foster, former CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance and community and neighborhood affairs administrator, talks homelessness and her thoughts on solutions.