Gibson Calls for Relocation of Homeless Services
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER – “It's my belief that our homeless problem impedes redevelopment,” said Councilmember Paul Gibson during Monday's City Council worksession. His call for downtown zoning changes that would make homeless shelters, soup kitchens, thrift shops and day labor businesses non-conforming uses sparked a heated discussion on the possible relocation of services that attract the homeless to Clearwater's downtown.
That discussion, although new to Council Chambers in City Hall, has been ongoing in the so-called East Gateway area of Clearwater's downtown for years. The Gazette's late colleague Marty Altner reported that a November, 2006, East Gateway business focus group expressed that the "soup kitchen and homeless related business must relocate out of the CRA [downtown Community Redevelopment Area]."
Minutes of a Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP) Neighborhood meeting on September 17, 2003, document an even earlier call for relocation of the soup kitchen run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but described the response of Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein, also a CHIP Director, as “Possibly, at some point in the future relocation will be discussed, however; at present it is not a consideration.” It is now the future and, courtesy of Gibson, relocation is being discussed.
“The public benefit clearly outweighs the hardship to the affected parties,” Gibson said of the proposed relocation, “We're not saying no, we're just saying no in key areas of our city that are suffering significant harm.“
“We and the private sector will have spent in excess of $40-million on our downtown area and to me, not to be dealing with this problem … just doesn't make any sense to me at all,” Gibson concluded. He said that the city should first seek the soup kitchen's cooperation on a relocation to a more suitable commercial or industrial area and, if that is unsuccessful, to “amortize them out' – a legal process that would allow a certain amount of time to move based on the value of their property.
“I disagree with about 99-percent of what you've said,” responded Councilmember Carlen Petersen, “This is the worst case of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) I've ever heard publicly-expressed.”
“The answer is not to move them somewhere else, to move them to an industrial area, put a gate around them, lock them up and hope they are never seen again. That's not the answer; it's to help these individuals,” she said, defending the efforts of the Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Network and CHIP.
“Any city you look at that addresses this issue head-on and keeps the services where the individuals are has the greatest rate of success,” Petersen said.
While it's not clear whether the homeless choose to be downtown or because they are attracted to the available food, restrooms and bathing facilities, the question of their impact on downtown redevelopment is more easily answered.
Dr. Gilbert Janelli, who owns a commercial property adjacent to the soup kitchen, said that he would love to redevelop his property, but has no current plans. “Until you move the volcano away, you are never going to have the type of redevelopment that needs to happen,” he said.
Janelli favors relocating downtown's homeless services. “People that are coming into Clearwater to look at doing something would also have a breath of fresh air because you don't have that negative impact on the commercial and residential neighborhoods that it abuts and significantly impacts,” he said.
Janelli's “breath of fresh air” reference was both figurative and literal. He spends a lot of time in the East gateway neighborhood, and has observed the lifestyle of the homeless. “If you have the CHIP center and they go there for an hour and a half to relieve themselves, take a shower and have something to eat, then where do they go?” Janelli asked rhetorically. Pointing out that relieving ones self is not a once per day activity, he asked, “Where are they going to do that?”
The Clearwater Downtown Partnership, an organization dedicated to the success of downtown businesses and property owners, stopped short of calling for the relocation of the soup kitchen, but would be supportive of such a city initiative. Bill Sturtevant, Chairman of the group's Executive Board, said, “The Clearwater Downtown Partnership wishes to support the purchase by the City of the soup kitchen and its relocation to an area where it may better serve those in need and continue to be of service to the community.”
While the Council reached no conclusion during their discussion on Monday, they agreed to continue their dialogue and have requested a presentation from the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit organization that provides support for homeless initiatives.
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