Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tent City to Open in St. Petersburg:

After more than 100 homeless men and women set up rows of tents under an overpass near downtown St. Petersburg last December, government officials and local charities decried the shantytown's unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Almost a year later, a new "tent city" will open Saturday. Optimistically dubbed Pinellas Hope, the outdoor shelter will feature portable showers and restrooms and individual tents outfitted with 4- inch-thick mats.

After months of brainstorming about how to solve the homeless problem, this is the solution that advocates and government officials came up with.

No one knows if or how it will work out.

"It is an experiment," said Frank Murphy, president of the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, which will operate the camp. "We all sit around and say, 'What do you think is going to happen?'"

Pinellas Hope will sprawl across 7 acres along 126th Avenue N near 49th Street.

The tent city will include an outdoor dining room, computers, Internet access and designated areas where the homeless can speak with caseworkers, social service agency representatives and other support facilitators.

At least 225 tents will be available. Volunteers will bring in prepared food and serve warm dinners.

The shelter is expected to remain open through April 30.

"You are going to see a place which is a bit more humane than last year's tent
city," said City Council chairman Jamie Bennett. "It still is a tent city, but
it is better than a cold sidewalk in the dark of night."

But Pinellas Hope is a far cry from the permanent shelter officials promised in January, when the area's homeless crisis was thrust into the national spotlight after St. Petersburg police officers, citing a fire safety code, slashed dozens of tents occupied by the homeless.

Then, in June, the state Legislature demanded that government agencies trim their budgets. Many cities, including St. Petersburg, responded by slashing funding to social services in order to protect other expenses, such as those for police and fire service.

Michael Amidei, chairman of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless' Interfaith Committee and a founder of the original tent city that opened in December, said local charities or cities will probably not be able to secure money to build a permanent shelter any time soon.

Pinellas Hope "is what it is," he said. "It is a Band-Aid solution for a five-month period of time, but that's considerably longer than the other tent cities have operated before."

Catholic Charities has received dozens of calls from homeless men and women interested in reserving a tent at Pinellas Hope. They were told to show up early on Saturday, Murphy said.

All potential residents will need to pass a background check. Among other safety measures: The complex will be fenced, and a 24-hour security guard will be present.

"It will be safe for them," Murphy said. "When they are lying on the street, there is no safety."

Some homeless residents have expressed concern that they will be fined or arrested if they do not move into Pinellas Hope.

An ordinance passed by the City Council this year prohibits camping and sleeping on St. Petersburg's streets if shelter beds are available.

Bennett said those rumors are false. The city will not arrest or penalize those who refuse to move to the tent city, he said.

"Tell me in our history when we have done that," Bennett said. "Our Police Department has been patient and they have really shown restraint when they could have been heavy-handed at any point."

What remains to be seen is how many people will show up Saturday looking for
help, Murphy said, and how many will stay.

"If they look and they don't like it, they can go," he said.

by Cristina Silva St. Petersburg Times

For anyone who thinks living in a tent in a public area is an acceptable answer to the homeless crisis, I say "Try it for a week."
I have been homeless for 10 weeks in Bradenton, Florida. Trust me when I say "This is not a chosen lifestyle." It's very difficult to find work when you don't have an address or money for gas to drive to and from interviews. And let's not even talk about the stress attached to not feeling a sense of personal security. With so many houses and condos sitting empty due to foreclosures, you'd think our government could come up with a better solution than housing people outside with winter fast approaching. I challenge everyone who is in a position to make a difference to go and live in that tent city for a week. I bet they could come up with better solutions if it were their family that needed help.
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