Saturday, March 10, 2007

The homeless struggle: Another showdown looms in St. Petersburg

Leaders of a group of homeless people living near downtown say they won't move from a sidewalk camp unless the city agrees to keep the tent city open indefinitely, among other demands.

The announcement, made at a Friday news conference at City Hall, could lay the groundwork for another showdown with police as early as next week.

It also brings a brief era of cooperation between the city and some advocates for the homeless to a grinding halt.

"We are asking them to put down in writing what they have agreed to verbally," said the Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries.

The city has been preparing to open a 90-day tent city on a vacant private lot so that people could move off the sidewalks near First Avenue N and 18th Street. At the end of 90 days, city officials say, they should be able to place residents in a more permanent setting, including a new shelter in Largo.

Though advocates initially agreed to the move, they now say it will not proceed without written protections.

Among them: The advocates and the homeless want equal say in how the camp is run. They also want to be able to bring new people into the tent city to replace people who are helped. And they don't want to be sent to the Largo shelter, to be built at the former site of the PSTA headquarters.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said the city never agreed to those terms, nor would it.

He said when the new site is ready, people will be asked to move.

And if they don't?

"Arrest is always an option, but it's not the first one we'll utilize," Davis said. "Reasonable people will move. If we're put in a position to have to take an enforcement action, I think people in the public will understand that."

City Council member Jamie Bennett, who has in the past has sided with the advocates, said patience throughout the city is wearing thin.

"This has gone on so long," Bennett said. "We're trying to be humane, but we're also trying to be adult."

The city made national news when police officers slashed the tents of a group of homeless people living on sidewalks in January.

Since then, officials have helped raise more than $1-million to provide shelter space and solicited the help of the federal government.

Mayor Rick Baker thought he had reached a suitable short-term compromise last week, when he agreed to open a tent shelter on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul along Fourth Avenue N.

Now that agreement appears in jeopardy.

Speaking Friday, several tent city residents and advocates said the homeless would refuse to move unless the city agreed to sign a proposal guaranteeing a voice in decisionmaking.

The list of demands seeks to establish a long-term tent city run by those who live there, rather than a temporary settlement overseen by the city.

Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, said Deputy Mayors Davis and Dave Metz had been most involved in the discussions. Rubin said there was concern in the homeless community that the city was enacting plans without enough feedback.

"We heard about some of their plans to move forward without enough input, and we wanted to put a stop to it," Rubin said.

Davis said Rubin, Wright and two tent city residents were invited to a meeting Wednesday, but did not attend.

Kathy Hines, a resident of the tent city on 18th Street near First Avenue N, said she was especially concerned about a city plan that might require residents of the new, city-sponsored tent city to wear armbands.

"I don't like that idea. ... I will not go with the wristbands requirement," Hines said. "A lot of these people have jobs and they're worried about losing their jobs if they have to wear wristbands all the time."

Without the support of Hines, the "mayor" of tent city, as well as advocates such as Wright and Eric Rubin, it is unlikely that the large group of homeless people living in tents will agree with the city's proposal.

The city is considering using armbands to help identify who belongs, officials said. Service providers would be required to wear them as well.

"We have to control it somehow," said Bennett. "You don't want to make it like a stalag or anything, but you have to understand who the residents are somehow, whether it's a tag or ID."

The city is racing against a clock to see whether the homeless will move.

The City Council will consider ordinances Thursday that would make the tent encampment on 18th Street and other places in the city illegal.

Davis knows if the ordinances are adopted, some residents will immediately demand they be enforced.

by Aaron Sharockman who can be reached at or 727 892-2273.
St. Petersburg Times

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