As soon as Richard Shireman and Richard Linkiewicz pull onto 15th Street in front of the St. Vincent de Paul shelter in St. Pete, a mass of homeless men and woman swarms to meet them.
The crowd looks tired, dirty and anxious. They ask rapid-fire questions: Can I go to Pinellas Hope? Can you get me a job? When is the city going to clear us out?
The two-man St. Petersburg Homeless Outreach Team -- paid by the city and Pinellas County to connect the homeless with services and shelter -- patiently answers each question. They direct one man to a day labor center and give another a PSTA bus token. But Pinellas Hope, the Catholic Charities-run tent city, is full. Just like St. Vincent. Just like every other shelter in the area.
Shireman and Linkiewicz move past the blankets and mattresses covering the sidewalks and dirt lot around St. Vincent, stepping over backpacks, bags and, sometimes, people. In a few days, all this will be gone.
Beginning Feb. 1, St. Pete city officials and police will begin removing the belongings that the homeless have stored on 15th Street, in front of City Hall and next to other downtown buildings. They'll also begin enforcing a new ordinance that prevents "sleeping, lying or reclining" on city right-of-ways in a broadly defined downtown area stretching from the waterfront to 31st Street and Fifth Avenue N. to Fifth Avenue S.
This follows an expanded anti-panhandling ordinance passed earlier this month and a series of rules passed last year limiting camping in city limits and sleeping on sidewalks at night.
In fact, more ordinances targeting the homeless have been passed in the last year than in any other year.
The push for a homeless-free downtown is in full bloom.
The handwriting has been on the wall for years, beginning when the city pressured homeless service agencies to move out of downtown in '90s. Shelter space in the city declined as the homeless population increased. Then, more recently, city officials began restricting activities commonly associated with the homeless: sleeping on parks, benches and begging.
Homeless advocates have fought the trend, sometimes successfully. But their influence has slowly waned, their impassioned pleas ignored.
Last week's City Council public hearing on the two newest ordinances proved to be one of the most contentious meetings on this subject. As the hearing stretched on for hours, resident after resident came to the podium in support of the new laws. Downtown business owners and condo dwellers railed against "those who choose to be homeless." Council of Neighborhood Associations President Barbara Heck signaled her support, along with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and St. Petersburg College (which is making a big investment in downtown arts, after purchasing the Palladium and working with American Stage to provide it a new home). City officials showed slides of homeless possessions in front of City Hall and played police surveillance videos of public urination and defecation. Even Patricia Waltrich, president of St. Vincent de Paul, supported the city.
Who showed up for the homeless? Outspoken (and widely reviled) advocate Rev. Bruce Wright, some Quakers, Uhurus and a handful of not-so-eloquent (but very passionate) homeless men and women.
This wasn't a hearing about two ordinances; it was a referendum on homelessness itself.
"How embarrassing it is to me and the city to [have to] find alternative routes to visit City Hall, Mirror Lake and Williams Park," said Bonnie Stein, a Mirror Lake resident.
Added local surgeon and tax-cut advocate David McKalip: "I'm being told I have to give to others who refuse to work for themselves. I'm sick of it."
Councilmember Jeff Danner summed up the mood: "The public is losing sympathy."
The City Council unanimously passed both measures. The homeless and their advocates walked out bitterly.
The city had won, again.
The homeless rarely fit stereotypes, Shireman and Linkiewicz say.
"Having worked with thousands of homeless in St. Petersburg over the past two years, I can honestly say I can count the number of people who 'choose to live on the street' on my fingers," says Shireman, a former police officer, Lutheran minister and current employee of Operation PAR, a substance abuse treatment facility.
"I've changed my views entirely," adds Linkiewicz, a 19-year veteran of the St. Pete police force. "I was one of those that said, 'Screw 'em. They just want to stay out here.' Aw, man, I've gone 180 degrees."
Take Kevin Messengale, 39. The Kentucky-born cabinetmaker arrived in Tampa last month looking for work. He came prepared with $600, but while looking for an apartment, two men stuck a gun to his head and robbed him. He came to a church shelter in St. Pete, but the religious folks scared him. He ended up sleeping on 15th Street in front of St. Vincent for three weeks. He's been trying to get back to Kentucky ever since. Shireman and Linkiewicz decide to buy him a bus ticket.
Then there's Jerry, a mentally ill man who has lived on St. Pete's streets for years. He was one of the first people to gain admission to Pinellas Hope in December, but he stopped taking his meds and caused "a series of disruptions," says Shireman, which led him to be kicked out a few weeks ago. Shireman then found a spot for Jerry in Boley Center's Safe Haven, a 25-bed shelter for mentally ill homeless people, but Jerry couldn't be found. Shireman and Linkiewicz find him now in front of St. Vincent and transport him to Boley. But it's too late; Jerry's spot has been filled. He hangs his head as a case manager talks with Linkiewicz and Shireman.
Can we get him into the Salvation Army? Beacon House? St. Vincent? No, they're full.
On a whim, the team tries the Turning Point shelter. The staff there reluctantly agrees to take Jerry for a few weeks until Boley has an opening.
"The frustrating part of it is not having the services you need," Shireman says. "Not having enough mental health beds, shelters. In so many ways, the demand exceeds the availability."
He agrees with a premise behind one ordinance, that having blankets and mattresses strewn downtown presents a health hazard to the homeless. But he believes the other ordinances won't fix the larger problem.
"It's unfortunate that we'd enact ordinances when we don't have adequate shelters and adequate places for people to sleep," he says. "It's one of those things where you push here and it shows up there. Any enforcement will just push the problem somewhere else."
That "somewhere else" will most likely be Williams Park, where the city cannot prohibit public assembly without legal challenges, or to surrounding neighborhoods outside of the sleeping ordinance -- Mirror Lake, Bartlett Park, Crescent Lake. Enforcement may only clog jails and increase the cost to taxpayers without solving the problem.
"Say I arrest someone," Linkiewicz explains. "First, they'll see a nurse [to get checked for any diseases, lice or other ailments]. Then, they'll be processed, spend a night in jail and be out the next day."
The cost to taxpayers: More than $700.
"I've worked downtown deployment," he says. "I arrested the same guy 20 times for a year. And I still see him out here."
Outside St. Vincent, a homeless man named Charlie approaches Linkiewicz and asks if the city plans to clear the area. Linkiewicz nods.
"Change is coming," he says. "That's for sure."
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