PINELLAS COUNTY, Florida -- Help for the homeless or a nuisance to the neighborhood? That's the debate surrounding one of the Bay area's largest homeless shelters -- Safe Harbor.
Safe Harbor is a former jail, located off of 49th Street near the Judicial Center in Pinellas County. Since the facility opened in January, crime reports in nearby Largo have nearly doubled. Homes and businesses up to 3 miles away from the shelter have reported crimes believed to have been committed by the homeless.
One officer told 10 News anonymously that he's responding to a lot more crimes than before the shelter, but the Pinellas sheriff, who runs Safe Harbor, says not all of the crime can be blamed on the homeless. Either way, neighbors and businesses near the shelter agree -- things are different.
Joyce Myers cleaned up shattered glass in the backseat of her car Tuesday afternoon after someone smashed her window. It happened while she was home, with the car in the driveway, and right in the middle of the afternoon. "What was it? 2 o'clock, maybe 3 when it happened?" Joyce remembers. "And they're doing that for a $69 drill they may get $15, $20 for. Who's to say what they'll do for whatever else?"
Joyce lives in the High Point neighborhood of Largo, just a few blocks from Safe Harbor. In the six months since the shelter opened, crime reports in the area have doubled.
"I've been assaulted a couple of times. I'm an avid bicycle rider and, going down 49th Street, I've had two of them try to take my bicycle away from me," recalls Curtis Holmes, who serves on the Largo City Commission. He hates that the shelter is just outside his city limits, yet close enough to call for Largo Police, Fire, and EMS.
"We [in Largo] have most of the problems," Holmes tells us.
Whether it's stealing a bottle of vodka from a liquor store or just swiping a candy bar from a gas station, businesses near the shelter say they've seen their crime go up too.
"You've got alcoholics, drug addicts, sex offenders, and 'criminal light.' That is the vast majority of what is over there right now," Commissioner Holmes says of Safe Harbor.
Even people who regularly stay at the shelter agree that it's not a safe place. "There are a good amount of troublemakers. I've had quite a few encounters. In fact, I've had more encounters here than I did in jail," Eric O'Malley tells 10 News just before he enters Safe Harbor for the night.
For those living nearby, none of this is welcome news.
"It's bad enough we have everything else going on out there. You [shouldn't] have to worry...when you're in your own house, in your own neighborhood," Joyce Myers adds.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office says they are aware of the concerns about crime. That's why deputies will step-up patrols in the area.
Still, the City of Largo says they are dealing with far more calls for Fire, EMS, and Police help than they did before Safe Harbor opened.
On Thursday, you can have your chance to ask questions or voice concerns about Safe Harbor. The Pinellas County Sheriff is hosting a community forum at Bayside High School, located at 14405 49th Street N. in Clearwater. The forum begins at 5:30 p.m., lasting until 7:30, and 10 News will be there.
For more information about the Pinellas County shelter, visit: http://www.safeharborpinellas.org/index.html