Sheriff Bob Gualtieri spoke at an Aug. 23 meeting for the Board of Directors of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) about complaints about SunRunner passengers.
The SunRunner service connects downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach and through South Pasadena. Particular riders in question happen to be people without homes, and they allegedly use the SunRunner, traveling for free — as does everyone who currently rides the SunRunner.
The PSTA Board of Directors discussed whether or not to begin charging a fare for the SunRunner. St. Pete Beach attendees expressed support for SunRunner charging full fares.
Here’s What Gualtieri Said
Gualtieri said this wasn’t about homeless people, but instead a public safety issue. He said he has actively been involved “in finding real solutions to the ‘chronic unsheltered homeless’ population problem in Pinellas County.”
“I challenge anyone to find another law enforcement agency in this country that is a larger provider,” of services to homeless people, Gualtieri said.
Pinellas Safe Harbor — A Home for People Without Homes
Pinellas Safe Harbor opened in 2011 to battle the criminalization of homeless people.
“We had overcrowding at the jail,” Gualtieri said, adding, “it was largely due to the criminalization” of people without homes, “people who were being arrested when they shouldn’t have been because,” he said, they were homeless people. “We wanted to do the right thing by the people and we wanted to solve the overcrowding in jail. So, Pinellas Safe Harbor has been very successful.”
Who are Chronic Homeless People?
“It is about ‘the chronic homeless’ [people]. This is a hard thing for people to understand,” explained Gualtieri. “There is a certain proponent within this population that actually like their lifestyle … They don’t want to go to Safe Harbor … So, this isn’t about that. This isn’t about social services. This is about a problem that has been displaced because people found out that they could ride for free from downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete[rsburg] Beach,” Gualtieri said. (Editor’s note: St. Pete Beach incorporated as such in 1957.)
A Displaced Problem
According to the Sheriff, SunRunner riders who normally sleep on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg started taking the free bus ride to St. Pete Beach to “sleep on the sand under the stars,” he said. “And to disturb residents and tourists.”
He also noted that it is illegal to sleep on the beach and to have open alcohol containers.
(Editor’s note: While the St. Pete Beach code of ordinances does prohibit “sleep at any time during the hours from sunset to sunrise of the following day,” the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional in 2019.)
The Sheriff said some residents reported naked men taking showers in the outdoor beach “rinse off” area at the County’s public beach bathrooms on St. Pete Beach. He said families claimed they had been harassed by people who asked for money or food.
“After word spread that they could ride for free to sleep on the beach, enablers who mean well decided to feed them and give them money to buy liquor,” Gualtieri said.
Cost to Taxpayers
He said last month he implemented a special duty of deputies on St. Pete Beach, which costs taxpayers about $10,000 a week.
“This is not OK,” he said. “This is a very real problem.”
Finally, Gualtieri said, “this isn’t about homelessness. This is a small group causing a big problem.”
Busing the Homeless People
Following Gualtieri, an assortment of Tampa Bay-area advocates for people without homes and officials spoke, including St. Pete Beach City Manager Alex Ray, and Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce President Robin Miller.
Board Member and Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers cautioned this was not an issue of “one city against another city.” However, she said, it was about solving a problem. She expressed concerns that people should not “label everyone with the same brush” and that these people were “choosing to check out.”
Flowers thanked Gualtieri for coming. She stated the photos he showed were much like other city’s photos of problems they faced daily.
“St. Pete Beach is now experiencing problems other cities have dealt with for years,” she said.
The Debate of Fare Versus No Fare Continued
The 15 members of the PSTA Board of Directors weighed in on the decision of fare versus no fare.
There was some talk of a 50¢ interim fare. This was talked through and brought to the point of nolo contendere. The group was concerned with getting ridership numbers for the year, ending in November.
At the end of this debate, all agreed that a full fare was the way to go. The full fare on PSTA is $2.25 each way.
Board Member and Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters began the process of making a motion for full fare in September. This did not pass a vote.
SunRunner Charges Full Fare
Finally, Flowers made the motion to start charging full fare on Oct. 1.
Commissioner David Albritton asked Gualtieri if he could report back on Nov. 1. The idea is to see if this new fare worked. The Sheriff agreed.
The SunRunner will charge $2.25 each way for a ride on Oct. 1, 2023.