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 One in a series
St. Petersburg’s homeless population exists outside the city’s dark recesses; they occupy the same downtown and waterfront parks as any other residents and visitors.
A Homeless Leadership Alliance analysis of survey data from 2018-2022 showed that St. Petersburg was responsible for 46.3 % of Pinellas County’s homeless. While the city’s total decreased by 44 people since 2020, its percentage of the county’s population increased by 4.8% What can local officials do to help a seemingly growing problem?
While some preferred to talk off the record, a few unsheltered citizens at Williams Park offered their thoughts on mitigating the problem and its causes. Those willing to speak publicly only provided a first name, including Ray, who has cancer.
“A lot of us out here get checks,” said Ray. “There’s nowhere to rent, and what few places there are, they’re full, and people won’t move. I wouldn’t either.”
Ray said he receives $914 monthly in Social Security disability benefits. He wants the city to build more affordable housing capped at lower percentages of the area’s median income, something dishwashers at the area’s restaurants could afford.
He also noted that many people living on the streets had a place to call home before the recent construction boom.
Former residents – who Ray said have money – cannot find or afford another place to live once old apartment complexes make way for luxury condominiums. Rents have increased by around 30% over the last two years, and many landlords require tenants to earn three times the monthly payment.
“The homeless population is growing because they’re closing places,” he added. “You have a lot that there’s nothing wrong with them – they’re not alcoholics, they’re not drug addicts – they just lost their place to live or can’t afford to get a place.”
Matt and Angelo later echoed that sentiment. While they all agreed that many homeless people battle addictions, they believe that is just one small aspect of ending up on the street.
What would help?
Ray said he was unfamiliar with the Police Assisting the Homeless (PATH) unit and Community Action and Life Liaison team (CALL). Those two programs, offered in partnership with the St. Petersburg Police Department, are meant to change how local officials respond to homeless issues.
He relayed that a housing waiting list program has helped people get off the street but said the process takes over two years.
“If there was some way they could break it down to where it wasn’t so long, or if they could buy some of the places before they (property owners) sell them to whoever wants to make a condo out of it … that would help,” Ray added.
Matt said he lost his job during the Great Recession and started to get back on his feet before the recent price increases took hold. He credited organizations like the local Health Department, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul CARES for providing food, clothing and hygiene products to the unsheltered.
However, he said a seemingly simple solution is desperately lacking – a place to take showers. Matt sounded wistful as he recalled his last apartment and the little things people take for granted, like a clean bathroom, and socks.
“Sometimes it seems almost futile to even try to start again,” said Matt. “Even if I got a job and all that stuff, where would I live? I can’t afford these rents.”
Angelo said he was close to securing a home in Clearwater when his boss fired him for being homeless about three months ago. He also appreciated the efforts of local shelters but said those facilities’ cleanliness and environment are an issue.
He suggested that shelter officials increase screening efforts and split facilities into groups according to those who are sober. Angelo relayed that many homeless people prefer to sleep outside rather than deal with uncleanliness and behavioral issues common at shelters.
The middle class
Both Matt and Angelo strongly advocated for initiatives to boost the middle class. In a sense, they believe that the rising tide would help to lift the unsheltered boats.
Matt noted that if people with jobs struggle to live in St. Petersburg, that leaves little hope for the homeless to overcome their circumstances. He wants to see an increase in workforce housing alongside more affordable units and for local officials to build those developments throughout the city.
“If you work on the middle class, give them housing, and then the veterans … you lift them up, we’ll see it and we’ll go for it,” said Angelo of government programs. “It’s like ‘follow the leader,’ and it opens everything up anyways.”
He said many homeless people, particularly the veterans, dislike and distrust the government. Many are promised programs and solutions, added Angelo, yet find an endless amount of paperwork and waiting lists.
He added that many homeless veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and making it to appointments at certain times is a significant challenge for anyone living on the street.
Angelo also noted that many homeless people were once middle-class teenagers that ran away from home due to conflicts with their parents. He suggested providing informal counselors who can build the trust of troubled youth at recreation centers before offering critical advice.
“It’s not something that happens overnight,” said Matt of becoming homeless. “By the time you realize it, it happened already.”
Next: City leaders talk homelessness, and their thoughts on solutions