Forerunner of new federal plan to combat homelessness didn’t work as expected in Florida

By Ryan E. Little and Clara Longo de Freitas

Published November 3, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration’s push to combat homelessness calls for an expansion of jail-diversion programs meant to keep chronic offenders out of jail for low-level offenses.

The jail-diversion program is in a federal plan released in October by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which coordinates the federal government’s response to homelessness.

But approaches such as this have failed in the past, an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found.

The federal recommendation bears striking similarities to a controversial program promoted by USICH executive director, Robert G. Marbut Jr., from his time as a local-government consultant.

He uses a carrot-and-stick approach, crafting systems that reward homeless people who get jobs and move toward affording their own housing while punishing those who don’t.

One of his earliest efforts was Pinellas Safe Harbor, a 470-bed shelter and jail-diversion program operated by the county sheriff in Clearwater, Florida. Opened in January 2011, its primary goal, according to its website, is to keep homeless people out of the county jail, saving taxpayers money.

The shelter’s proponents say it has provided shelter to thousands and connected the chronically homeless to social services without lengthening their criminal records for minor crimes like trespassing or sleeping in public.

But the Howard Center found that Pinellas Safe Harbor has failed to attain its primary goal.

We’re not running it like a jail where there’s immediate consequences for actions. We want to find out why they’re behaving like this.
— Lt. Zachary Haisch, who runs Pinellas Safe Harbor

Homeless people call it the “jail-ter’’ instead of a shelter, said Kirsten Anderson, a lawyer who has sued St. Petersburg, Florida, and other cities over their treatment of the homeless.

From 2012 to 2019, arrests rose for nonviolent crimes like panhandling, trespassing and drinking alcohol in public among people with addresses that indicate they are homeless. A Howard Center analysis of Pinellas County court data showed such arrests increased from 1,699 to 1,795 even though the homeless population dropped by 39%.

Going to Pinellas Safe Harbor is meant to be a choice an arresting officer can offer a homeless person found committing such nonviolent offenses. Yet, even when homeless people chose the shelter, few followed through on the necessary steps to get their charges dropped.

Data provided by the local public defender’s office, a partner in the shelter, shows that only 27% of the people taken to the jail-diversion program took the steps required to get their charges dropped.

Of the 2,314 people brought to Pinellas Safe Harbor facing charges between April 2011 and August 2017, only 623 stayed and completed the requirements. More than a third — 802 people — didn’t even make contact with the Homeless Outreach Diversion Program to start the process.

The number of referrals have also waned over time. There were 1,662 people referred in the first three years Pinellas Safe Harbor was open. There were only two total in 2018, the last year for which records were made available to the Howard Center through a public-records request.

Going there, staying there, trying to get your life back together? I don’t see that happening.
— Michael Jones, 60, on Pinellas Safe Harbor

Sandra Bentil, a St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman, said her department barely uses the jail-diversion program anymore because homeless people who are given the option to go there choose jail instead.

Initially, homeless people opted for Pinellas Safe Harbor, she said. But that changed over time.

“After they had been through it, there was a decrease in their willingness to participate in the program,” Bentil told the Howard Center.

A Largo Police spokesman said his department does not make referrals to Safe Harbor in lieu of arrest. Clearwater Police declined to comment.

When asked about the declining referrals, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said the analysis was misleading but refused to say why.

“Safe Harbor has existed for 10 years and it accomplishes its goals,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wrote in an email. “You do not get to set artificial measurements and then report that as some sort of analysis gotcha. ‘Court data’ comes nowhere close to measuring Safe Harbor’s value or success.”

Gualtieri declined repeated requests for interviews.

Bob Dillinger, the public defender in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, also declined repeated requests for interviews.

Marbut’s appointment to lead the USICH was met with widespread condemnation from homeless-advocacy groups because the systems he has recommended rely on the threat of jail to push homeless people off the streets and into shelters.

He said it was unfair to use Pinellas Safe Harbor as a case study on the effectiveness of the new federal approach because it was funded, in part, by a grant from the Department of Justice — one of the 19 federal agencies his interagency council works with.

“If you’re getting (Department of Justice) money, you gotta use that measuring stick. If you’re getting (Department of Health and Human Services) money, you use HHS as a measuring stick,” Marbut said in an interview with the Howard Center.

“For you to say you want to take a DOJ-funded grant and suddenly use a HUD measuring stick, that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever … unless you’re trying to, you know, produce a message … rather than, you know, facts.”

He also emphasized that he has not been involved with Pinellas Safe Harbor in almost 10 years.

Marbut would go on to recommend it to other cities, including proposing Volusia Safe Harbor and Sarasota Safe Harbor for the Florida counties that include Daytona Beach and Sarasota, respectively.

I have repeatedly offered social-service organizations the opportunity to take over operation of (Pinellas Safe Harbor), but unfortunately have not had any takers.
— Bob Gualtieri, sheriff, Pinellas County

The Pinellas Safe Harbor building is a former jail. Residents have to pass through a metal detector anytime they return. Men and women sleep in separate pods. And if they miss the 8 p.m. curfew or are intoxicated, they might be forced to sleep outside in a hot and humid region.

During inclement weather, people sleeping outside can take shelter in a garage.

The shelter prefers to help residents, not punish them, said Lt. Zachary Haisch, who has overseen the shelter since 2013.

“We’re not running it like a jail where there’s immediate consequences for actions,” Haisch said. “We want to find out why they’re behaving like this, so we’ll put them in touch with their case manager. We’ll sit down. We’ll talk to them.”

The city that hired Marbut to help it with its homeless problem was already notorious for its treatment of homeless people. In 2007, a viral video showed St. Petersburg Police slashing tents with box cutters and knives — a culmination of the city’s yearlong battle with the visual signs of homelessness that began when a local advocacy group allowed homeless people to erect tents on its property.

By then, Marbut had already developed his “Seven Guiding Principles of Homeless Transformation,” which include recommending bans on public food distribution and panhandling. Those practices, he has said, only enable homeless people to stay on the street.

The Trump federal plan recommends communities “review and align local laws and ordinances to support the goals of the partnership.”

Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, said criminalizing life-sustaining acts for people with nowhere else to go doesn’t make jail diversion right.

The organization, formerly known as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), described the Pinellas Safe Harbor system as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” in a 2014 report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

“The only reason it’s jail diversion is because it starts with the premise that basic life-sustaining activities are things that can be and should be criminalized,” Tars said. “And then we can use that to force people into services they wouldn’t otherwise want.”

While Gualtieri declined an interview with the Howard Center, he said in a response to emailed questions that Tars and other critics are leaving out “context and facts.”

“I have repeatedly offered social-service organizations the opportunity to take over operation of the program, but unfortunately have not had any takers,” he wrote in an email to the Howard Center. “Perhaps the NLCHP could spread the word and redirect some resources to take over the program rather than fabricate false narratives about our efforts to keep homeless people out of the criminal-justice system in our community.”

But based on the numbers, people living on the street in Pinellas County appear skeptical.

One night this spring, a homeless woman named Cherie couldn’t fall asleep. She was living in a dilapidated beige Honda Accord parked in a public park in St. Petersburg. It was infested with bugs that bit her and the poison she used to kill them was making her feel sick.

The 62-year-old, who asked that her last name not be used, got up to lie down in the park, risking arrest. The bugs and the threat of jail were still better than a 4-inch mattress on the concrete floor of Pinellas Safe Harbor, she said.

Sure, it can provide shelter from the pouring rain, said her 60-year-old partner, Michael Jones. “But as for going there, staying there, trying to get your life back together? I don’t see that happening.”

Little and Longo de Freitas reported for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.