CLEARWATER-- A delegation of Suncoast leaders toured the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless facility Wednesday afternoon, as Sarasota city and county staff members continue to figure out ways to tackle the area's homeless problems.
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, Deputy Chief Stephen Moyer, and neighborhood advocate Linda Holland all toured the facility. All of them were more than impressed.
"It's proven to be a very good model and a very good facility," said Holland.
Established in 2011, Safe Harbor is unique because its a homeless shelter operated by a law enforcement agency, that being the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. Doctor Robert Marbut, a consultant on the homeless, recently hired by Sarasota, was instrumental in helping establish the facility. Safe Harbor employs ten case workers and a handful of deputies. It offers alcoholics and narcotics anonymous courses, religious services, and classes on finding employment.
Safe Harbor serves all homeless individuals, but its primary purpose is jail diversion. Meaning, if a homeless person commits a petty crime somewhere in Pinellas County, rather than going to jail, the individual will have the option to go to Safe Harbor. The shelter serves around 400 people every day.
"It's well decorated, well painted and clean. A lot of the clients take pride in the programs," said Moyer.
Those who are homeless can come and go as they please, but in order to eat three hot meals, take showers and sleep on a mattress, the individuals but be enrolled in the courses the shelter offers.
Those who toured the facility kept an open mind, asking themselves if a shelter like this could operate somewhere in Sarasota County.
"There is a lot of space here. It's a very large facility. We need to take a serious look in the city of Sarasota as to where this is going to be," said Atwell.
The even bigger question may be, how? Safe Harbor receives an annual budget of around $1.6 million. The facility did not have to be constructed. It used to be a bus maintenance facility, and then an annex to the county jail.
Holland says city leaders must get the ball rolling now.
"There is always a funding issue, and yet, we seem to find funding for less significant things. Lets stop the nonsense about funding, and lets move on," she said.