For most of us, being homeless is an extraordinary and unimaginable circumstance that could only happen to other people. In reality, homelessness affects a growing number of people across the country and in the Tampa Bay area each year. According to a February 2007 report made to Congress, it is estimated that 750,000 Americans are homeless on any given night. A local survey revealed that more than 57,000 people are homeless each day in the State of Florida, 2,300 of whom are here in Pinellas County. These astounding numbers have remained steady in recent years, and recent headlines have focused on many different issues facing our local homeless population.
Because law enforcement frequently comes in contact with the homeless in our communities, we must be able to address issues that are specific to their needs. Recently a Pinellas County Sheriff's deputy was assigned full time to work with the homeless population in Mid-Pinellas County. Deputy John Fitzgerald, an 11-year veteran with the Sheriff's Office, was selected for this position due to his experience over the past seven years as a community-policing deputy in the Lealman area. Because of his experience with the homeless and due to his involvement with the Pinellas Homeless Coalition for many years, Deputy Fitzgerald was a natural fit for this new assignment.
In late February, Deputy Fitzgerald joined forces with Tim Hadlow, a social worker from Directions for Mental Health in partnership with the Pinellas County Human Services Department. Each day these two men patrol areas frequented by the homeless where they speak with individuals about specific needs. Because there are many reasons that a person might be homeless, it is important to determine what can be done to improve a person's circumstance, and what level of assistance will be accepted. It is recognized that simply finding a person shelter for a night or two seldom improves their long-term situation.
When Deputy Fitzgerald and Mr. Hadlow identify a homeless person in need of assistance, or when such a person has sought them out for help, the first step is to complete an evaluation. In addition to a need for shelter, such factors as medical, dental, and vision care may be required in addition to treatment for psychiatric problems or alcohol/drug addiction. Once the evaluation is completed, the individual may be referred to one of several local programs offering long-term assistance. This type of placement allows the individual to obtain proper identification, apply for food stamps or disability if they are entitled to it, and to find legitimate employment that will make them self-sufficient.
Since it began in late February, more than 75 homeless men have received assistance from this new partnership. Some have been provided food, a shower, and a bus ticket that has reunited them with family members willing to help them get back on their feet. Others have been placed in long-term programs where they are once again regaining control of their lives.
Being homeless is not a crime, but if law enforcement can offer the assistance necessary to give someone a new start then perhaps that is some of the best public safety service we can provide.
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