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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Pinellas authorities evaluating homeless diversion program

ST. PETERSBURG — This summer, police compiled a list of 22 names it determined were the city’s most recalcitrant homeless people — including Michael Smigelski, a transient who this year alone had been arrested 20 times, mostly on charges of public drinking.

Because of his status, Smigelski and 154 other homeless men and women throughout Pinellas County were diverted, beginning in July, to a pilot effort intended to steer them into programs dealing with their addictions, or into housing designed to get them off the streets.

Twelve days ago, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri mentioned Smigelski, 52, as one of the program’s success stories. Smigelski was one of 93 people — out of the 155 participants — who agreed to forgo a stay at the Pinellas County Jail and instead get help at Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county’s shelter for homeless people.

In Smigelski’s case, there was a mental health evaluation, after which he was assigned a bed at Turning Point, an alcohol treatment facility in St. Petersburg, Gualtieri said during a recent interview.

The sheriff cautioned, though, that there was no guarantee Smigelski, or any of the others who were diverted to programs or housing, would not end up back on the street.

He was right.

On Friday morning, Smigelski was arrested for the 21st time this year on an open container violation charge after he was seen in downtown St. Petersburg, drinking from a 16-ounce can of Hurricane High Gravity Beer, St. Petersburg police said.

Still, police report seeing fewer members of the 22 chronically homeless people they track on the streets, and they credit the 90-day pilot program spearheaded by Gualtieri and supported by the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, the public defender and the chief judge.

“We are not seeing them as much as before,“ said Maj. DeDe Carron, who oversees downtown St. Petersburg and is charge of the police department’s homeless outreach program.

“They are staying in jail longer and they seem to disappear after, so we are presuming they are going into treatment,” Carron said.

The reason they are remaining in jail longer is a result of the 90-day pilot program.

Typically, a person arrested on an open container charge is released within 24 hours because it is not deemed a serious offense. That’s what used to happen to Smigelski, who was in and out of the jail five times in February.

Under the pilot program, court and law enforcement officials use a carrot-and-stick approach. If a defendant in the program refuses to be taken to Pinellas Safe Harbor and participate in services there, he might be held in jail for days — until his next court proceeding.

Once Smigelski was designated a chronic homeless person, he spent 15 days in jail in September after one open container arrest and eight days in October following another, jail records show.

Gualtieri, in the interview, gave other examples of homeless people he said had been successfully diverted under the pilot program..

One was Ferdinand Weldon Lupperger, 60, who spent four days-long stints in jail before he agreed to go to Safe Harbor, and from there to the Banyan Tree Project, a transitional housing facility.

But Lupperger was arrested Thursday morning on an open container violation, records show.

Gualtieri said the 90-day pilot program came to an end this month; no decision has been made as to whether it should be continued.

“You do what you can,” Gualtieri said. “Does it help enough to justify this on an ongoing basis? I don’t know the answer to that until I have a discussion with the stakeholders and evaluate it further.”

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