Saturday, January 13, 2007

St. Pete Evicts Homeless Inhabitants Of Tent City: On Friday morning a young woman made the first of several trips out of the makeshift community of homeless people that has come to be known as "Tent City."

Clutching hangers and plastic supermarket bags filled with clothing, she made her way to a spot beneath Interstate 275, two blocks away. The woman later returned to the encampment for her tent. She dragged it down the street, accidentally leaving one of the tent's metal stakes behind on a sidewalk.

"We have to leave by this evening," the woman said, pushing strawberry-blond hair out of her eyes. "I don't want to have to do it at the last minute."

Anyone who remained on the 4 acres at Fourth Avenue North and 13th Street had been told by the St. Vincent de Paul Society that they had until noon Friday to leave.

The charitable organization never planned to physically remove the site's temporary inhabitants, however, said Sophie Sampson, the society's executive director.

That left a second deadline of midnight Friday, when St. Vincent de Paul was expected to be in violation of city codes prohibiting tent cities anywhere in St. Petersburg. City police on Friday evening said anyone with a tent still on the property could remain there for the night. Today, however, they will be asked to leave or face arrest on trespassing charges, police spokesman Jim Haley said.

Winter Produces Tent Cities
Tent cities often appear in Florida communities during the winter. The Rev. Bruce Wright, a local advocate for the homeless, said they have risen in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota.

Tent cities give homeless people a sense of community and safety that they lack while fending for themselves on city park benches, in doorways and beneath highway overpasses, Wright said.

As Friday's deadlines loomed, Pinellas County social services employees and St. Vincent de Paul workers scrambled to find temporary shelter, bus fare or gasoline money for the homeless people who remained at tent city. The site's population, which peaked at about 150 people, had dwindled substantially by Friday morning.

Assistance Offered, Taken
County officials issued roughly 40 rent vouchers, said Cliff Smith, assistant director of Pinellas County's Human Services. Another dozen tent city residents were offered mats to sleep on at a local shelter. Twelve more received various forms of travel aid. One man, for example, accepted a ride to Tampa, where he boarded a bus to West Virginia, where his brother lives.

There were complaints. A man with a back ailment said sleeping on a mat at a shelter would be painful. A woman who breathes with the help of an oxygen tent first was told the $623 stipend she receives for her disability disqualified her for a rent voucher.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society, as the property's owner, could have asked police to evict the tent city dwellers as trespassers on Friday. Instead, the society gave police the authority to prevent anyone who moved out from returning, Sgt. Tim Montanari said.

Sixty people remained at the site Friday morning, he said.

One of them was Tiny "Little Dirdy" May, 32, who recently was released from jail after being detained on crack cocaine charges. May had no intention of leaving, but if she had to do so, she said, she would move her tent down the street to a spot beneath the interstate overpass, just as the woman with strawberry blond hair had done.

1999: Fort Lauderdale's tent city, set up in the mid-1990s across from city hall, closes. Homeless people are taken to Broward County's new Homeless Assistance Center.

2004: Pasco County sheriff's deputies evict two dozen homeless people from a tent city near U.S. 19 and State Road 52.

2004: Monroe County and Key West officials agree to build a safe zone, or tent city, to provide shelter for homeless people in the island city.

2007: A Miami city commissioner withdraws a proposed ordinance that would have made it illegal for "Umoja Village" to remain on city property in Miami's Liberty City. The tent city also was established to protest a perceived lack of affordable housing for low-income Miami residents.


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