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Local leaders discuss solutions for city’s unhoused

Ashley Morales

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Recognizing the need to address homelessness in the community, the St Petersburg Downtown Partnership convened a “leadership lunch” Wednesday at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to explore innovative solutions for supporting St. Petersburg’s unhoused population.

The event featured presentations from St. Pete Free Clinic and the City of St. Petersburg and was moderated by former state Rep. Ben Diamond. The leadership lunch series is a longstanding event for the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, an organization with a  mission to “champion community prosperity through purposeful, transformative projects.”

Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, said the goal was to foster dialogue and collaboration among community leaders who are working to provide support and resources to the area’s unhoused neighbors and business leaders interested in working together to solve the issue.

“I think downtowns around the country are struggling with what is perceived to be an increase in unhoused people in their communities because downtowns are a source of strength and services, so people who are struggling with homelessness gravitate to downtowns because that’s where they can go to get services,” Mathis said. “In St. Petersburg, it really has not been that bad. We seem to be managing really well, but we know that the only way to effectively deal with some challenging issues in our community is by education; by talking about it, looking at best practices and understanding the lay of the land.”

Healthcare providers, service organizations, government agencies and community groups are increasingly working together, leveraging their collective resources and expertise to develop comprehensive strategies to address the complex challenges faced by unhoused individuals and families.

St. Pete Free Clinic (SPFC) is a non-profit organization that provides a robust roster of community services, including healthy food, housing and free and reduced-cost healthcare services. According to Jennifer Yeagley, CEO of SPFC, the organization has witnessed a staggering rise in the number of individuals seeking food assistance – it’s now serving over 40,000 people monthly, compared to 20,000 pre-pandemic. 

“So many families are [also] part of our hidden unhoused population,” Yeagley added. “They don’t want to go to shelters, and they don’t want to seek services because they’re afraid that their children are going to be taken away from them, and that’s a real fear.”

Jennifer Yeagley, CEO of St. Pete Free Clinic (far left), told the audience at Wednesday’s Leadership Lunch that her organization currently serves about 300-500 unhoused individuals monthly through food pantry services – a number that has been increasing in recent years.

Amy Foster, Housing & Neighborhood Services Administrator for the City of St. Petersburg, highlighted the concerning trend of childhood homelessness, noting over 3,700 students in Pinellas County Schools are experiencing homelessness, 70% of whom are “couch-surfing” or living in motels. 

“The city has been on the forefront of addressing this,” Foster said. “We have a program specifically for childhood homelessness that looks at the increase in grades whenever we’re able to help students and also reduces absenteeism. So we were the pilot for that and then the school system implemented their ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars to take that program from just the St. Pete program to county-wide.”

Foster also touted city programs like a scattered-site shelter initiative that utilizes hotel and motel rooms to provide temporary housing and wraparound services for homeless families. She noted that while unsheltered homelessness has increased by 18.5% across Florida since 2022, St. Petersburg has bucked this trend, with a steady decline in unsheltered homelessness since 2016. Foster attributed this success to the city’s investment in strategies modeled after the Department of Veterans Affairs’ approach to reducing veteran homelessness.

“It’s really a matter of finances and political will in order for us to impact this issue,” Foster said. “Not only is it the morally right thing to do, but it just makes fiscal sense, as well.”

Both Yeagley and Foster also emphasized the distinction between individuals experiencing temporary homelessness due to financial hardships and those facing chronic homelessness, often compounded by mental health issues or substance abuse disorders.

Yeagley noted that continued and greater funding is needed to support ongoing mental and behavioral health services, community navigators to help with long-term case management, permanent supportive housing and affordable single-room occupancy housing for those transitioning out of homelessness. She said St. Pete Free Clinic is also working on some “low cost, high impact ways to transform lives.

“We’re getting ready to implement a pilot project to get cell phones into the hands of our unhoused neighbors so that they can stay connected. Employment, our families, our children’s schools, the capability to check email to apply for jobs to get a better job – ​​we can name a million reasons why we can’t live without our phones today, and that is the same for unhoused neighbors. Without a phone, they are cut off from services and opportunities they need to keep them whole and get their lives on track.”

Diamond asked the panelists to respond to a recent state law prohibiting camping on public property and requiring the establishment of designated camps for homeless individuals, which Foster met with skepticism and believes could lead to costly legal battles without addressing the underlying issues. 

“It’s absolutely not going to work, and I think what we’ve learned over history is that creating camps for people is not humane,” Foster emphasized.

When it came to actionable solutions, Yeagley encouraged the many employers in the room to review their hiring practices and reconsider requirements that may pose barriers to employment, such as strict background check policies and increasing wages.

“The living wage for a single person in Pinellas County is $22.58 an hour,” Yeagley added. “[When] people have money in their pocket, they’re not looking at homelessness because they have the money they need to keep a roof over their head and pay their bills, so that’s another key thing that we can do as a community.”

Seeing the turnout of engaged city, community and business leaders, Mathis felt optimistic about how groups of many backgrounds are working together to tackle the issue of homelessness.

“One of the cultural benefits that this community has is that St. Petersburg is really well served by this sort of core of common decency and good sense; of people willing to roll up their sleeves and try to find solutions,” Mathis said. “So I think people should be really encouraged that we are being actively engaged in thinking about this issue, and thinking about the human beings who are struggling with homelessness. It’s not just something we push off to the side, but we really want to find solutions.”

Related reading: Will a public sleeping ban lead to local tent cities?

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    June 6, 2024at8:53 pm

    Question: How many Unhoused were in attendance????

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