Saturday, March 17, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Police Chief Chuck Harmon said Friday that officers would arrest homeless people as "a last resort" while enforcing strict new city ordinances that prevent people from sleeping on sidewalks and other public rights of way.

Speaking at a press conference just hours after a City Council meeting, Harmon said police officers would try to reason with homeless people who were violating the new ordinances and attempt to get them help, such as access to shelters. Officers would arrest homeless people only if they encountered stiff resistance, Harmon said.

"It is not our intent and has never been our intent to criminalize homelessness," Harmon said. "Enforcement is going to be our last resort."

The City Council passed a series of ordinances Thursday night that forbid people from putting up tents or any other temporary shelter on public property. The ordinances also prohibit sleeping on rights of way adjacent to residences or sleeping on any right of way if shelter space is available.

The City Council approved the ordinances over the objections of advocates for the homeless and a coalition of civil rights groups and the Pinellas-Pasco public defender's office, which told council members that the laws may be unconstitutional.

The city has also reopened a tent city on property owned by St. Vincent de Paul on Fourth Avenue N that it shut down in January, saying it will have room for 75 tents.

The police department's vow to reason with the homeless was a far cry from the harsh approach it took after the murders of two homeless men in January, when officers raided two tent cities and cut tents with scissors, knives and box cutters.

Both Harmon and Mayor Rick Baker called the raids a mistake after they provoked outrage and drew national attention.

By Friday morning, the two satellite tent cities appeared abandoned. Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said there were 75 tents and 100 people at the city-endorsed tent city.

Several homeless residents in the new, sanctioned tent city said they appreciated the security. But some added that they wanted more input and resent having to wear wristbands.

"How would you like someone to build a house for you, an architect, and he doesn't consult you at all?" asked G. W. Rolle, who has been homeless since October.

Some homeless people have gone to the Lakewood United Church of Christ on 54th Avenue S, where parishioners have voted to open a 30-tent encampment on church property. City officials say any property owner needs a permit before allowing people to sleep outdoors.

Harmon said police officers had recently gone by the church, but not seen any tents. If tents are erected, Harmon said, it would be a code enforcement issue, not a police matter.
by Abhi Raghunathan who can be reached at
Times staff writer Christopher Ave contributed to this report.

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