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 Four in a series
Some believe local governments and organizations should not spend tax dollars sheltering the homeless; however, research shows it makes fiscal sense.
Former Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA) of Pinellas CEO and St. Petersburg City Councilmember Amy Foster often relays that fact to people unaffected by a moral obligation. Foster, now the city’s community and neighborhood affairs administrator, said people living on the street cost about $45,000 annually through their use of public services – think police interventions, emergency room visits, jail stays and sanitation issues, among others.
She added that housing someone and providing onsite wraparound services through a local provider like Boley Centers cost about $25,000 annually.
Foster serves as a conduit between the local homeless population, HLA, the city council and the administration. She relayed that during her time as a council member, one of her colleagues recommended finding more positive news to report and less “doom and gloom.”
“I’m a firm believer that we must face the brutal facts to move forward,” said Foster. “The average resident in our city has no idea that 19,000 people touch the homeless system in Pinellas County every year. They also have no idea that we have made great strides in reducing those numbers in previous years, and what we’re doing is working.”
She explained that local leaders implemented several initiatives to mitigate homelessness. However, as many other city officials noted, Foster said the problem is that the need far exceeds program capacities.
When the first phase of the Skyway Lofts affordable development opened in March, over 2,400 households applied to rent 60 units. Scott Macdonald, executive vice president for Blue Sky Communities, said his organization is reaching out to people on the previous waiting list as they build 66 new units in the second phase.
Another example is the city’s emergency rental assistance program, which exhausted millions in American Rescue Plan Act funding in about a month last year. However, Foster said there is some hope on the horizon.
“There is a lot of advocacy happening at the national level, especially with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to ask Congress to allocate funds for a permanent emergency rental assistance program,” she said. “The City of St. Pete has been fortunate to receive over $5 million new dollars from the federal government to get at the root cause of our housing crisis, and the money will be programmed to build more affordable units.”
While unsheltered residents have expressed the need for a proactive plan to rehouse people displaced due to redevelopment, Foster said, “we actually do this all the time.”
She said local stakeholders deploy an “all-hands-on-deck approach” whenever they learn that a low-income multi-family redevelopment is upcoming. She used St. Petersburg’s Stanton Hotel and Apartments as an example of those efforts, despite residents protesting in the streets after receiving 30-day eviction notices in October 2021.
Foster said agencies across the county and city come together in those instances to meet with tenants and help them find housing and resources. She added that Reach St. Pete even procured assistance from a private donor to help pay Stanton residents’ moving expenses that government-funded organizations could not cover.
“In a perfect world, I would transition most of our work and funds that are focused on sheltering or rehousing people upstream,” said Foster. “To prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. And make sure everyone has access to resources for their mental and physical health needs.”
She also expressed a deep commitment to the “Housing First” philosophy adopted in Pinellas. That is where local leaders provide shelter before addressing someone’s underlying issues.
Foster explained that housing first does not mean “housing only.” She said homeless officials must ensure those clients receive much-needed services to help address root causes once they have a safe place to sleep.
Many people point to addiction as a leading cause of homelessness, something disputed by members of St. Petersburg’s homeless population and statistics from the HLA’s latest Point in Time Survey data. Over 37% of respondents reported financial problems were the cause of their homelessness, while 7.3% listed substance abuse issues.
“Talk to any homeless individual, and they will tell you that you almost have to drink or do drugs just to be able to sleep on the streets,” added Foster. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches us that basic needs must be met before anyone can work on self-actualization – like getting the mental health services they need or working on sobriety.”
Change only happens through relationships, said Foster, and it is up to local leaders to keep building a rapport with unhoused residents. Earning their trust also increases the likelihood of them accepting assistance.
Foster relayed that an 80-year-old homeless woman recently accepted shelter after several meetings with the Police Assisting the Homeless (PATH) unit and community support specialists “and was so excited to be able to take a shower.”
Foster said that St. Petersburg’s residents are typically compassionate and want to be a part of the solution. She added it is up to homeless officials to “break down” a complex problem so that everyone can make a difference.
She also noted that behind every one of the 19,000 people experiencing homelessness is a story.
“I keep stories of the people I have met at the forefront in my role now when we are making decisions or working through processes,” Foster said. “Cities are not known to be nimble or move quickly – but I am constantly reminding staff that if you slept in a bed last night, then I need you to act with urgency for those who did not.”
Next: Nonprofit leaders and those on the ground talk homelessness and their thoughts on solutions.