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Homelessness takes a front seat at PSTA meeting

Mark Parker



SunRunner's Grand Central station. Photo by Mark Parker.

Local leaders gathered at Wednesday morning’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) meeting to discuss the agency’s role in assisting the area’s homeless population.

Homeless Leadership Alliance, St. Vincent De Paul CARES and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) representatives joined PSTA’s Planning Committee to brainstorm potential solutions. Commissioner Renee Flowers requested Wednesday morning’s discussion at the Aug. 23 board meeting as part of her motion to implement SunRunner fares starting Oct. 1.

That represented a compromise between those who wanted to begin charging an electronically payable fee in August to mitigate homeless ridership, and those who preferred to wait until the previously scheduled Nov. 1 start date. However, Flowers opened the conversation by stating that her intent was not to discuss fares but to assist the unsheltered in other ways.

“And not that they can’t go to the beach,” Flowers added. “But who are doing things that are against the ordinance in St. Pete Beach – you cannot sleep on the beach. In most cities, our parks are closed at a specific time.”

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders expressed her confusion with the evolving topic. She said the initial discussion regarded the criminalization of homeless people on St. Pete Beach who took advantage of the free bus rapid transit service.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

She noted the conversation changed to implementing a fare for people traveling to the beach from west St. Petersburg SunRunner stations. “And not vice-versa, which definitely targeted our homeless population,” Figgs-Sanders said.

Several St. Pete Beach home and business owners voiced concerns over homeless passengers bringing crime and vagrancy to the community. At the Aug. 23 board meeting, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, “Word got out, instead of sleeping in St. Pete, in Williams Park, they could take the SunRunner to St. Pete Beach and sleep on the sand, under the stars.”

Gualtieri said calls for service increased 535% year-over-year at the Dolphin Village Shopping Center across from the Gulf Boulevard SunRunner stop. He also told the board the community was safe and that “this is social crime; crime related to this chronic homeless population.”

The board voted 13-2 to begin charging fares Oct. 1. “Which is where this meeting, to my understanding, came about,” Figgs-Sanders said Wednesday.

“Because my concern was not to have every organization in the city that’s doing wonderful things for our unhoused constituents,” she added. “But to talk about the impacts of, number one, charging that one fare across the board and moving it to October.”

Figgs-Sanders also hoped to discuss how PSTA could help anyone needing assistance continue riding the SunRunner for free. The planning committee did not broach either initiative.

However, Rev. Andy Oliver said it is unlawful for an officer “to rescind authority to be in a public place under threat of trespass. I have a video of a homeless man – who was breaking no ordinances – being asked to leave St. Pete Beach.”

Federal and local government funding subsidized the SunRunner. The project came in over $5 million under budget, allowing for expansion and increased service.

Dr. Kanika Tomalin, president of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, said her meeting invitation featured a series of questions. She expressed concern over the language, which included asking attendees to identify alternatives for homeless people who sleep and shower on the beach.

“That’s not the discussion that we heard – that’s wonderful,” Tomalin said. “There’s quite a distinction between working to identify resources to help our houseless neighbors … and mitigating the perceived impact those houseless neighbors might be having on residents and recreation on the beach.”

Joshua Shulman, planning committee chair, said the questions “were meant to get the juices flowing and get some thoughts out there, but I don’t think any of us here were interested in working on the perception of an issue.”

Potential Solutions

Committee members and stakeholders did identify potential ways to assist the homeless population. PCSO Captain Greg Danzig noted that PSTA’s 175 buses are also billboards. He said they could advertise the myriad services provided by local nonprofits.

Dr. Monica Alesnik, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA), excitedly agreed. She said the organization has QR codes that direct people to resource guides once scanned with a cellphone.

Alesnik said bus drivers could also carry and offer pamphlets. In addition, she suggested that some drivers attend HLA’s trauma-informed care training. Shulman said drivers receive safety training and could potentially take additional courses.

Flowers said both proposals were “really good suggestions.” Shulman concluded the meeting by asking homeless advocates to communicate route issues with PSTA.

“Oftentimes, we’re unaware of other things that are happening that can impact the community,” he added. “So, letting us now allow us to … attempt to be as responsive as possible. Sometimes, there is still no best solution.”


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    September 13, 2023at3:40 pm


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    Danny E White

    September 13, 2023at4:29 pm

    There are two separate and distinct issues: implementing the already-planned ride fare but one month early; and the impetus behind implementing the fare being the reported issues attributed to houseless people who allegedly took the SunRunner to ‘sleep on the beach under the stars’ and/or who reportedly commit a crime of some sort. The houseless crisis is not new to the City, it has just been illuminated by the SunRunner discussion. The fare for those whose legitimately need financial support (underbanked people or income challenged people) to continue to ride is something PSTA needs to take on. The newly established Community Support Hubs with its wide reach through existing social services entities should take on the opportunity to offer houseless people options for transportation and any other services that can help them navigate life, and not pulling bus drivers into the mix by training them to be social services agents!

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    Joan Bonnain

    September 13, 2023at7:18 pm

    I was homeless 5 years ago and stayed in the St. Vincent DePaul homeless shelter in downtown St. Pete, along with the rest of the homeless population there. I was shocked by the number of career homeless, those who had no desire to be housed and did nothing to try to help themselves get housed. I met people who traveled the country, going from shelter to shelter, treating homelessness as a big happy road trip around the country rather than a problem that needed to be solved. I met 1 woman who seemed to be intelligent, educated and when I arrived at the shelter, she had already been staying there for 3 years. She had 2 storage lockers in town that were filled with items that had been donated to the homeless population….socks, shoes, clothing, kitchen items, non perishable foods, electronics, etc. I recently went back to the shelter and she’s still there, seeking donations for herself online with her newly donated laptop computer. There were some, like me, who were working to get themselves housed, but there were many who were content to sit outside the shelter under the overpass, all day long, smoking and joking and waiting for their next meal. Maybe some were mentally ill or on drugs or had given up. But I suffer from clinical depression and I’m a veteran and still found it within myself to work my way out of my situation. In now living I’m a nice 2 bedroom condo in Clearwater, I have a fairly new car and I’m proud of myself for coming this far. Before you get all sympathetic about those “poor homeless people and their situation”, I recommend you put an observer in the shelter to see just how many are trying to get themselves housed and how many are content to hang out all day, collect donations and wait for their next meal. In some cases, you are helping those who won’t even make an effort to help themselves. With those individuals, you are wasting your efforts and these people are content to take a free ride for as long as they can. I recommend they impose time limits on how long you are able to stay in the shelter, based on your abilities, and if you aren’t trying to fix your situation, show them the door, freeing up space for those who are homeless and will work to improve their lot in life. There are, indeed, career homeless people out there who would turn down a job because hanging out all day is easier. They aren’t all “poor homeless people” who deserve your help and donations. They just take as much as you are willing to give until they drain you dry. If you carry a healthy man, you just make them weak.

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    Steve Sullivan

    September 13, 2023at7:51 pm

    Why the all caps?

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    David J Nickell

    September 13, 2023at8:13 pm

    Homeless people are treated so terrible in St.Petersburg, especially St Vincent,they do not care at all….watched to homeless people die right next to shelter, so sad.
    Homeless people need real help and health care and free bus rides.
    I’m so appalled how Homeless people are treated 😪

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    Scott Johanson

    September 13, 2023at8:45 pm

    I’m not homeless, but I can’t wait until Vet have that free at all times ride in Nov. I wish they would start now as Pasco rides for Vets are free and have been for a while I believe. I did read about it.

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    Ryan Todd

    September 13, 2023at9:06 pm

    Send the homeless on a one-way fare to Tampa. Keep them out of my neighborhood where they abuse narcotics and steal our bicycles.

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    Steve Sanders

    September 13, 2023at9:14 pm

    Why isn’t anyone asking specifically what the homeless are doing to help themselves? Why is it decent society’s responsibility to find all the solutions? The homeless oftentimes are suffering from severe mental illness which is overwhelmingly likely the reason they are homeless to begin with. Any self respecting person is going to insure they do what’s necessary to keep a roof over their heads. The answer is not to give away for free anything of value, be it food, clothing, shelter or a ride to the beach. I think the fare should be $10.00 each way, that would certainly keep the undesirables off the bus.

    On a side note: I love the creative names people come up with for poor people. “Income challenged”, really? Or my personal favorite: “underbanked”. Who comes up with this stuff?

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    Lenne Gilzow

    September 13, 2023at10:23 pm

    The homeless know the resources of help. When they gather, they tell each other where to go when they see a need.To be excited over this solution is a cop-out.

    This city garners all these new taxes from all this new development and can’t provide quality therapists to access individuals on on individual need and provide for their legitimate hand up?

    If you can raise 92 million for a pier…and have achieved massive growth since…what does this truly say about the care, concern and humanity of the leaders of out community?

    This is a priorities issue. Helping the disadvantaged should always be a priority. Especially if you proclaim a religious affiliation.

    The city did this quite awhile ago when we received national press about law enforcement tearing down tents.

    It can be done. Will it?

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    September 14, 2023at12:27 am

    There is a portapotty set up near the intersection of Park Street and Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. I am assuming it is for use by the large homeless population that panhandles at that intersection. Why don’t the authorities set one up on St. Pete Beach as well? What’s fair is fair.

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    September 14, 2023at9:08 am

    That’s the problem everyone wants to homeless to be out of their houses their communities which means they have nowhere to be they deserve to see the beach as well as everyone else but the crime itself I agree is escalating and needs to be stopped at some point their people too

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    Steve D

    September 14, 2023at12:02 pm

    Joan, congratulations on your Herculean effort to turn your life around. Also, thank you for the courage to post what many people already know, including pandering media types, but are afraid to say because they don’t want to be labeled insensitive.

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    September 14, 2023at4:06 pm

    Kudos to you, Joan and thank you for all your common sense suggestions.

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    September 14, 2023at5:07 pm

    Any problem the homeless have,with the exception of housing, housed people also have. The only difference is our problems are visible. You don’t think there are alcoholics living in St. Pete Beach? There is no domestic violence either,right? In an ideal world we would ALL be able to live a “Normal” life unfortunately it doesn’t work that way

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    September 14, 2023at10:51 pm

    I’m so beyond the HR terms to attempt to repaint people’s situations and make it seem as if they have no control. If you create victims trust and believe everyone will jump on that train very quickly it seems to be embedded in our culture currently. You should have the best intentions for your fellow human beings and in that same thought process you should think of human beings worst intentions as well and plan accordingly. I don’t know why people think throwing endless amounts of money at everything is a solution. Give money to someone with an addiction or gambling problem it won’t solve anything. Give them mental health services and if they don’t want to get well it won’t help anything. Help people who are trying to better themselves put out guard rails up to prevent the abuse of the system. Everyone’s so excited about all the section 8 housing and gets upset if you stereotype it. Where do you think the stereotypes come from? They come from lived experiences. It’s a developer grab bag to dip into state, local, and fed funding to over bid development cash out and get guaranteed rents funded by those of us who work.

    Somehow I grew up poor. Lived with a family of five in a three bedroom apartment with a roommate. Have private student loans at credit card interest rates. Have worked since I was 15 and I’m somehow here surviving but I should give up 35 percent of my paycheck to everyone else who can’t adult and hides behind medical label? Weird I’m ADHD, suffer from depression and anxiety and somehow work and went to college.

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