Gulfport city officials are partnering with neighboring Treasure Island to offer more and better services to the area’s population of homeless people.
The Gulfport City Council voted June 20 to approve a contract with Directions for Mental Health, Inc. dba Directions for Living, a Florida nonprofit company. Gulfport and Treasure Island will share the cost of this organization’s “street outreach and engagement specialist services,” according to officials.
“The Cities of Gulfport and Treasure Island desire to provide funding to support projects and programs in support of the goal of providing resources, services, and special needs related supportive services to homeless and vulnerable citizens located within the geographic boundaries of the respective cities,” officials said. “Directions for Mental Health, Inc. is known as a mental health leader that provides services for homeless populations in Pinellas County. It currently operates a homeless [person] street outreach model, which is designed to reduce chronic homelessness by focusing on connecting people who are homeless to housing and resources.”
Each City will pay $43,825 from their respective coffers to retain a street outreach and engagement specialist. This person will work full-time for Directions for Living. They will split time equally between the two cities to provide those services for the homeless people who want them.
Directions for Living also administers these services for other parts of Pinellas. Hence, they can provide a continuity of services to meet the transient nature of the homeless people the company serves, officials said.
New Social Worker for Gulfport’s Homeless People
The organization will provide one full-time (40 hours per week) staff member to work with the two cities. The target population for the services under this program includes any homeless person living on the street or other places not meant for human habitation in the geographic boundaries of those cities.
“There is a small [population of homeless people] in the community which is identified daily,” said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly. “Police and fire interact with them on a daily basis. We are looking for ways to provide services to these individuals and to tell them what is available.”
O’Reilly said the primary city department to serve as liaison with the engagement specialist would be the fire department. Chief Rene Fernandez has been interacting already with Treasure Island leadership in that regard.
“It’s an outreach environment. They will come out to the city and make contact,” said O’Reilly. “Police and fire are very familiar with these individuals. They will reach out to these folks through the fire department until we know what we are dealing with.”
O’Reilly said he learned an interesting fact from the Directions for Living staff.
“Sometimes it takes 50 contacts to get a person to accept help,” he said.
Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent told the council that his department already uses this company to participate in a program through which officers can reach a mental health professional remotely when needed. A homeless person can consult with this professional by use of an electronic tablet carried by a police officer. After, the officer can follow up to see whether the person should get taken into protective custody, or if some other action would work better.
Fire, Police Personnel Familiar with Local Homeless
“This worker you are talking about will not be dealing with mental health, but with finding resources related to homelessness,” Vincent said of the proposal under council consideration.
Vice Mayor Paul Ray (Ward III) commented he had seen a similar program work in another city.
“It’s about building a rapport, establishing relationships,” he said.
O’Reilly pointed out the nature of Gulfport’s small community means police and fire chiefs know many of the homeless people. Many of them frequent both cities, he added.
“Some people will never accept services,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “But at least it’s there.”
Fernandez said his officers always try to assist people without homes, but this program will allow a different approach.
“The difference is that this social worker will build a relationship with them over time,” he said. “Instead of us just asking if we can take them to the hospital, they will go up to them and ask what they need. It doesn’t mean they are taken straight to a shelter. They offer them the help that they want.”
Fernandez said there are often situations in which social workers will interact with the same people for months or years before they finally accept help.
“We’ve seen this work in many communities,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Councilmember Christine Brown (Ward II) gave this assessment of the proposed program:
“I think it’s one of the most important things we’ve done.”
To watch all or part of the council meeting, click here.