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At the Table: Homelessness in St. Pete

Mark Parker

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Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders stands outside City Hall. She believes local leadership must prioritize solutions for addressing homelessness. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

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.”

A line of people outside of St. Vincent de Paul’s CARE Center in St. Petersburg. The organization provides a myriad of homeless services. Photo provided.

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.”

A homeless person occupies a bench in St. Petersburg’s Edge District. Photo by Mark Parker.

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.

Read Part One here and Part Two here.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Carl Hebinck

    January 24, 2023at6:48 pm

    Ms. Figgs: Hat’s off to you for voicing so passionately your feelings for alleviating the affordable housing situation for the homeless and other low income people in St. Pete. That’s “making some good trouble.” I have a possible contribution: Since 9 out of 10 houses [92%] being built in St. Pete are wood frame…and wood frame constructions is increasingly more UN-affordable, why not look outside the box [the wooden box] for the affordability solution. Like you said, “traditional wood frame builders are not addressing the affordable housing issue.” Why not look away from the FORM of the house, which is WOOD and instead look at its FUNCTION which is [safety and comfort]? Why keep presuming that if it’s a house it’s got to be made of wood? You asked for “innovation;” this is what I’m suggesting–an innovation in technology to solve this problem. I feel your pain; I’ve worked with feeding the homeless on MLK on Saturday mornings in St. Pete as a member of Celebrate Outreach.

    The innovative technology I speak of is building ADU houses with Steel SIP’s [a more expensive product]; but there’s a way to make it AFFORDABLE. And building with Steel SIPs is FAST.

    Making them affordable CAN BE as simple as 1,2,3.
    1. We produce them as a nonprofit; 2. Like you said, we build them in people’s backyards [ADU’s] eliminating Land Cost and 3. we set up a Workshop in So. St. Pete to make these great panels at 1/3rd the cost of buying them. [We could produce 10 a day]. Other intrinsic benefits of this technology are that it does’t need a slab foundation, exterior sheathing, house wrap, foam board, roof trusses, roof sheathing, felt, shingles, furring strips—not even drywall, built-in closets or extra painting. All these can be eliminated when building with Steel SIPs. This way we build them at half the cost, in half the time and with half the GHG’s. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Setting this up is simple…and inexpensive; I can explain how if given the chance.

    As you said, “why do we keep kicking the can down the road?” Given the opportunity we can “move quickly” It only takes 25 actual work days to build these ADU houses. And we have four 1 and 2 bedroom models designed at under $45,000 ea.

    Do you have time to discuss it? Carl Hebinck, Veteran, Volunteer, Retired builder 727 902 5487 chebinck@gmail.com

  2. Avatar

    LOLITA Dash-Pitts

    January 24, 2023at11:04 pm

    I also agree. I commend you for both your honesty and compassion!

  3. Avatar

    Mike

    January 25, 2023at1:03 pm

    The government is not your caretaker. If government tries to fill that role, both of you will fail. And Fail miserably.

    The demand for all these services is coming directly from the same groups that criticize the police… And every single other civil institution.

    What makes anyone anywhere suspend disbelief that the same city can magically defy the laws of economics? And simultaneously compete in an open market? And simultaneously be your babysitter, landlord, grocery store and chef? Baffling. It’s baffling.

    Aren’t you paying attention?

  4. Avatar

    Mike

    January 25, 2023at2:21 pm

    …and that’s also a great photo of her. Gotta give credit where it’s due.

  5. Avatar

    Steven Taylor

    January 25, 2023at4:31 pm

    Zoning for small 1br homes must be done by the city. There are places where contractors won’t build. Also mental health issues must be addressed. It’s a mess but housing is number 1 on the list,as the VA says. We must stop turning our backs,and face the problem.

  6. Avatar

    Erik

    January 25, 2023at6:37 pm

    No the government is not your caretaker but what belies a big part of the problem is that your past City Government was the issuer and caretaker of the developers who came here with High-end development that created this mess..So the City Government has to do a better job to rectify this problem..

  7. Avatar

    Fee

    January 25, 2023at7:27 pm

    What I know is the housing crisis is ridiculous I was born an raised here I pay taxes as well I have watch St Petersburg manifest into a over priced city where they are trying to move all the people like me out of here an cater to the rich but when that happens an it will cause we can not afford to live here who will serve all the food, an work in the nursing homes, hospital,an all the places where low income people are working an trying to survive at the same time I pay 1170 for a 1 bedroom it went up to 1318.Noth special an a lot of drugs around me then in order for me to renew my lease so I won’t be homeless they went up on my rent adding cable service from spectrum for 60. More dollars added on with out an option I have to drop my service where I received government help to pay for internet an take the apartment service agreement they made with spectrum in order 4 me to renew my lease which takes me to 1385 this is ridiculous being force to take services I can’t afford in order to have an roof over my head no one is paying attention to these landlord adding all kind of services so we have to pay for them no matter if we want or can not afford it. This is another reason people are on the streets an living in cars I’m 1 check away from being homeless I’m afraid I don’t make enough an I work 2 jobs it’s just ridiculous that Nothing is or can be done about all this expensive housing being build and existing housing adding all these things on the rent to stay which makes it worst so if I renew an can afford to pay my rent but not cable I get evicted according to the apartment building this is not right it’s so much going on with no affordable housing an it seems as if no ones cares as long as it don’t affect them. What about people like me who work hard an all I want is an affordable place to live before I find myself like so many homeless.

  8. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    January 25, 2023at8:10 pm

    I agree the former administration leader contributed greatly to the homelessness problem. When I ride the interstate near the 28th Street South exit, I look to the right, there is a lot of empty land. Can it be used for tiny houses, and/or container homes. There is land the city can use. What about the boarded up abandoned homes???We must be creative and think.

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