ST. PETERSBURG — The homeless issue used to be front and center in city politics.
That was never more true than in 2007, when the city garnered national attention after police officers slashed the tents of more than 20 homeless people living in a tent city at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue N — days after two homeless men were shot and killed.
The backlash against then-Mayor Rick Baker was intense. He said the situation was mishandled, that police commanders ordered the operation without his knowledge. He promised a new direction for the city’s homeless policy.
Flash forward a decade. Baker left office in 2010 and is now battling incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman to return to City Hall. In this mayor’s race they’ve dissected the sewage spills and argued about climate change, the fate of Midtown and city spending.
But the one thing they haven’t talked much about is what to do about the city’s persistent homeless population. In fact, Kriseman has barely used the 2007 incident to attack against Baker. And Kriseman’s own record on homelessness has largely gone unexamined in the race.
So how do the two Ricks compare in their approach to what remains one of the city’s most intractable problems?
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Both have different approaches to the problem. Kriseman said he has taken a multi-faceted strategy that spreads city dollars around to several non-profit partners.
He cited examples such as increasing funding for homeless families and signing on to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to end veteran homelessness.
“As an administration, we just didn’t want to focus in on one thing,” Kriseman said. “We wanted to look at what programs were out there that would be effective.”
Baker said he focused his efforts on a single goal: creating more shelter space. Following the tent-slashing episode, he approached the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg for help. The church agreed to convert 13 acres of land in unincorporated Pinellas County into a homeless shelter in December 2007. Pinellas Hope now houses up to 400 people a night in a combination of tents, cottages and apartments.
FROM THE TIMES ARCHIVES: St. Petersburg slashes homeless tents
“It was the most important thing we did,” Baker said. “It became clear that we need places for emergency shelter. You can’t just continue to push people from one area to another area. You’re not really getting anyplace.”
But providing housing isn’t enough, Kriseman said. He said his plan includes providing services like job training, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health counseling.
“One program alone isn’t going to resolve the issue,” Kriseman said.
Catholic Charities president Frank Murphy, which operates Pinellas Hope, favors Baker’s approach.
“I always say he never failed me,” Murphy said. “On a scale of 1-10. He’s an 8 or 9 with me.”
“God bless him, I don’t want to say anything negative,” Murphy said. “He’s helped with a few things but nothing major.”
Baker favors expanding housing options at Pinellas Hope if he wins.
Kriseman supports continued funding, but said other options, including rapid rehousing — finding new housing for the newly homeless as quickly as possible — also need money.
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After Baker left office in 2010, the city’s homeless problem seemed as hopeless as ever. Up to 150 people slept on the city’s streets.
The solution in 2011 was to create Safe Harbor. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri partnered with local governments, including former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster (who served in 2010-14, between Baker and Kriseman), to turn a jail annex into a homeless shelter. The goal was to create enough bed space so officers could legally force homeless people off the streets and into a shelter.
Safe Harbor now houses about 400 people a night. Gualtieri praised Kriseman for increasing the city’s share of funding from $100,000 to $150,000. But the sheriff said St. Petersburg and other Pinellas cities need to do more to support the $2.3 million annual operating costs of the shelter.
“The mayor has maintained the status quo of the positive direction that was in place when he took office,” said Gualtieri. The sheriff, a Republican, has endorsed Baker for mayor.
Whoever wins in November will face the latest iteration of the same problem.
Like the rest of the country, Pinellas County is in the midst of an affordable housing crunch. The Pinellas County School District counted 3,508 homeless students in the 2015-16 school year, a slight drop from the year before. And last year the Mosley Motel, the home of last resort for many poor families and seniors on 34th Street N, closed for good.
City Council member Amy Foster, who is also chairwoman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, said Kriseman has done more than just offer lip service to the problem.
“Every time I brought an issue to him, he’s responded,” said Foster, who has endorsed Kriseman. “Not only does he speak about his values and caring for the vulnerable, he’s backed that up with funding.”
James Keane, former president of the Historic Uptown Neighborhood Association, praised Kriseman for helping his neighborhood solve a particular homeless issue. The city and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas, which runs a shelter at 384 15th St. N, came together to curb the growing problem of trash left behind by the homeless loitering around the facility.
“Today it is a totally different landscape than the neighborhood I walked with Mayor Kriseman a few years ago,” Keane said. “I fully support him.”
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But Keane acknowledged that the homeless problems that used to afflict Historic Uptown may have been pushed elsewhere in the city.
“The point being is that you’re always squeezing the balloon in one way or the other so I don’t know if the homeless issue will ever be fully solved,” Keane said.
There have been complaints lodged about homeless people being pushed from downtown areas like Williams Park to points west. A resident complained at Tuesday’s candidate forum that homeless people had moved from Williams Park to a playground on 13th Avenue N.
What, resident Bob DePugh asked, can be done about that?
The question prompted both candidates to distill their philosophies moving forward.
Baker said his first priority would be housing homeless kids. Providing mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment were also high on his list.
Kriseman said he would continue working on mental health, drug treatment and job training. He touted his administration’s partnerships with non-profits like Family Promise, which houses homeless families.
Then Baker addressed the tent slashing episode.
“It was a mistake,” he said. “We shouldn’t have done it.”
Earlier this week, Kriseman called the tent-slashing episode a “dark time in the city” and said he wouldn’t have made the same choice.
At the forum, the mayor didn’t repeat his criticism, but said the cornerstone of his philosophy was to treat homeless people with “dignity, respect and compassion.”