Move quickly on homeless center

A Times Editorial
Published February 14, 2007

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Providing adequate help for Pinellas County's growing population of homeless people is going to take creative thinking by smart people interested in taking action now. Some of that thinking is going on in Largo.

Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, knew that an office building that formerly housed the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters was empty and unused on 49th Street in mid Pinellas. With homeless people erecting tent cities under highway overpasses in St. Petersburg and sleeping in parks and patches of woods elsewhere in the county, Snyder wondered whether the building could be used to house and serve the homeless.

Because Largo owns that property, Snyder mentioned her idea to Mayor Pat Gerard. When Gerard isn't handling mayoral duties, she works for a nonprofit social services agency, so she understands issues involving human need. Gerard also is a member of the Homeless Leadership Network, a group of county leaders working to solve the homelessness problem in a decade.

Gerard mentioned the idea to other Largo commissioners and the city manager. The county got involved, too, and within days, officials searching for alternatives to tent cities for the homeless were touring the old PSTA building and punching their calculators.

Government typically does not move that quickly. However, the negative national publicity St. Petersburg received over the tent cities convinced even recalcitrant officials of the need to address the problem quickly.

There might be no better place for a homeless service center than the former PSTA property. It is in the middle of the county and does not adjoin any residential property. There will be no neighbors to oppose services for the homeless there.

The 5 acres are close to the Pinellas County Jail and Largo's wastewater treatment plant. Largo bought the property in 2005 in case it eventually wanted to expand the treatment plant. The 16,200-square-foot building has some shortcomings, but officials are looking at ways around those. The presence of a high school within sight of the property might be an issue for some, but Bayside High is a special school with lots of on-site security.

Officials are considering making the PSTA property a model center to serve the homeless. It could offer beds, showers, counseling, and job and housing referrals. It would be a place where homeless people could stay for as long as several months while they addressed their addiction problems, got mental health counseling or looked for a job.

Because Largo might eventually need the land to expand its wastewater treatment plant, the service center is not a long-term solution, and any investment in retrofitting the property needs to be carefully considered.

However, using the PSTA building could help ease the immediate crisis, and officials could use the experience to help them hone proposals for three permanent homeless service centers scattered throughout Pinellas.

It is far better to use this publicly owned property for the good of needy people than to allow it to sit vacant until Largo needs it.

Congratulations to Snyder, Gerard and others who had the idea and promoted it quickly. People need shelter. Time to get moving.