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Sheriff: Homeless issues plummeted with SunRunner fares

Mark Parker

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SunRunner's Grand Central station, one of many stops from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. Photo by Mark Parker.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri believes charging fares for the previously free SunRunner service has solved St. Pete Beach’s homelessness “problems.”

Gualtieri, speaking Wednesday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) board meeting, said implementing the $2.25 one-way fee caused calls for assistance to plummet. In August, the board voted 13-2 to start charging for the service Oct. 1, a month earlier than initially scheduled.

Throughout the summer, myriad St. Pete Beach stakeholders expressed pointed concerns about homeless residents taking advantage of the bus rapid transit service that links downtown St. Petersburg and their coastal community. However, several community advocates, local leaders and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch opposed implementing fares on the SunRunner.

“The problem’s solved,” Gualtieri said. “It worked. What we predicted the solution would be has provided that solution.”

Gualtieri used departmental statistics to illustrate his point. He said calls to the beach access point near the SunRunner’s terminus soared by 705% after the service launched in 2022.

Calls to a nearby shopping center increased 446% during the same time. Gualtieri attributed the spike to “homeless transients” from Williams Park and other downtown St. Petersburg locations.

He said his office received 76 calls for service to the beach access in August and 84 in September. There were just two after the board implemented fares in October.

Similarly, calls to the shopping center dropped from 24 in September to eight in October. “So, a drastic improvement,” Gualtieri said.

“It’s back to where it was,” he added. “You’re going to have some of it, and it’s an acceptable level … you’re going to get a few people here or there.”

Unlike most municipalities, St. Pete Beach taxes do not support PSTA. The city still receives services.

In his Aug. 22 letter to CEO Brad Miller, Welch noted that the SunRunner relied heavily on government subsidies. He said St. Petersburg’s $4 million investment and dedicated lanes allowed PSTA to receive over $20 million in federal funding.

He also offered to pay the $200,000 in expected annual revenue from the fares. Welch wrote that St. Pete Beach enjoys a free shuttle system, and Clearwater officials recently implemented a free park-and-ride service in partnership with PSTA.

Gualtieri declined to reiterate the “unacceptable behaviors” caused by St. Petersburg’s homeless population utilizing a similar program. During previous meetings, several residents said the free trips brought crime and drugs to their idyllic community.

One speaker said she was afraid that “somebody’s going to throw a Molotov cocktail through my window.” Gualtieri told the board Wednesday that the criminal element refused to pay the $2.25 fare.

“I’m happy,” Gualtieri said. “The residents and citizens that we all serve and the tourists that are coming in there – the feedback is that everything is good.”

Board member Joshua Shulman asked the sheriff if he believed the agency helped provide a solution. Gualtieri said he hoped to implement a fare earlier but believes they reached a “happy medium” through collaboration and cooperation.

He also noted that the PCSO spent $10,000 weekly responding to additional calls for service. “I bring it up because there’s been a lot of talk about this board’s accountability to the public and other stakeholders,” Shulman responded. “I just wanted to get your opinion.”

 

 

 

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Dine Sousa

    December 9, 2023at11:01 am

    This is how you serve the public? By feeding into the stereotypes the rich place on those in hard times? If someone can afford drugs and the absurd amount of time it takes to get anywhere on a psta bus then they can still pay the 2.25 if they really want to wait to do their drugs in front of your house before throwing invisible Molotov cocktails through your privileged window. Side note: if you think the problem is substance abuse then you should know they are NOT going to waste their alcohol on burning your house down lady. And the sheriff IS PROUD OF HIMSELF FOR THIS???!? Let’s not help but hurt people that already need help to make sure people who don’t need help get help for problems that aren’t problems. Nothing like furthering bigotry through law enforcement. Plus all he absurd calls you get from rich bored people with nothing better to do than call the cops and complain that people who aren’t dressed the way you want or have money like you so must be homeless and if your homeless you MUST DEFINITELY be a DRUG ADDICT?!?!?! SHERIFF YOUR PROUD OF YOURSELF?? I’m ashamed for you. Your actions are deplorable and those of someone who makes problems worse not helps. Make the rich happy and the poor can go die in someone else’s county huh? WOW…

  2. Avatar

    dana

    December 8, 2023at6:50 pm

    john u said it right

  3. Avatar

    Siddartha Hemalaja

    December 8, 2023at2:06 pm

    So the lady that believed somebody was going to throw a Molotov cocktail through her window decides public policy!

  4. Avatar

    JudyToo

    December 7, 2023at11:51 am

    The primary issue is a total lack of common sense at PSTA, especially when Welch and the SP City Council get involved with his schemes. Most of the focus at PSTA is on getting more federal funds (taxpayers money) to keep PSTA out of bankruptcy.
    The Sunrunner was a scheme from the start, not because of demand for riders. They knew this so came up with the bright idea of free fares which of course backfired.
    Let’s see what ridership they get now. The real purpose of the Sunrunner is to encourage development along the route. It turns out that most of that development has resulted in expensive housing.
    Now Welch and council are focused on taxpayers money to subsidize “affordable housing.” That’s not working out so well either.
    Spending taxpayers money is what got this country and this county and this city into the mess we are in. Printing money and giving it away ultimately results in inflation and higher interest rates, which means lots more problems and even more unaffordable housing.
    Elections have consequences, we the people have the right to vote so we get what we deserve when we elect those who believe more/higher taxes and subsidizing everything will change everything. It only leads to continued fiscal irresponsibility.

  5. Avatar

    John burrows

    December 7, 2023at10:40 am

    The homeless need help!!!! That is our biggest problem the mental health are not getting taken care of and the homeless shelters are full of families if you are single without a check or not from here you have a quick out date the staff is to busy to round up the Mental health people if they leave and hope to not get hit by a car crossing traffic to get to a bus stop because the staff can’t Handel the workload and one of the shelters if you can not walk a mile from bus stop disabled it’s a problem if your lucky to get in, please go look at the shelters and help volunteer if you can ! Bless the people feeding the homeless please…They need your help as well I’m so happy we have the few out there giving back with there time!! even if it’s a hour of your time here and there that’s what people need more people helping the homeless ❤️❤️ it takes one person at a time to make a big difference it’s a quick ride on sun runner to help the homeless

  6. Avatar

    Mike

    December 6, 2023at10:10 pm

    I wish st Pete had a government that worked for its residents like st Pete beach. Instead st Pete fetishizes irrationality and destructive behavior and victimization.

  7. Avatar

    Austin

    December 6, 2023at6:49 pm

    They didn’t solve the issue, they pushed it under the carpet. Until we address the root causes of homelessness, not least is the ridiculous hike in rent and home prices over the last few years, no one should be claiming the problem is “solved.”

  8. Avatar

    KG

    December 6, 2023at4:51 pm

    There is definitely an issue with unhoused people in the wider downtown St Pete area. There are several locations that provide free food and clothing. The free food is often discarded on the sidewalks and in the park creating an issue for those resident walking their dogs. Very often there are chicken bones and rib bones discarded which dogs are drawn to. It creates a choking hazard. Free clothing is often used as toilet paper and discarded in parks, on the street, in alleyways and sidewalks. These unfortunate unhoused people are sleeping in carports, in un fenced covered porches and in alleyways. There was an article in The Atlantic magazine recently detailing how the city of Houston, TX has had some success in solving homelessness. Our city leaders would be wise to make an effort to tackle this solution before our downtown deteriorates further.

  9. Avatar

    Danny E White

    December 6, 2023at4:35 pm

    It was just moved up a month to placate the St. Pete Beach leaders in response to citizen complaints. The resolution has come as an organic occurrence, and not because of any actions by governments or PSTA other than implementing the fare a month prior to its scheduled date. And there remains an issue with unhoused people in Pinellas County… that is the ‘problem’ that requires creative resolution.

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