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Task force suggested to deal with homeless

The county commissioner sees the problems experienced by east Lealman as shared across Pinellas.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

LEALMAN -- County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd was so troubled by reports that an overabundance of hardcore homeless people has traumatized a neighborhood that she suggested creating a task force to solve the problem of the down and out across Pinellas.

"I think it's frustrating for the citizens when they hear their government say their hands are tied," Todd said. "We've got to look for some creative solutions."

The task force would include civic leaders, home and business owners, and advocates for the homeless. Also represented would be city, county, state and federal agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, which often deal with the disenfranchised.

The task force members would consider solutions to help those who need it as well as disciplinary measures to handle those who refuse to be helped. Changes to zoning rules to prevent clustering of soup kitchens and new vagrancy laws to help deputies get problem homeless off the streets are possibilities.

Any action plan, Todd said, should do more than shove people from one jurisdiction to another. That happens now: Chased by police, some homeless people merely move to another area.

"We've got to have a solution," Todd said. "We can't just keep shuffling them between the cities and the county."

While the task force is working toward a permanent solution, Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice is considering immediate relief to residents and business owners along 28th Street N between 38th and 62nd avenues in east Lealman.

One short-term fix would be changing the work hours for some of the area's community police officers, Rice said. Having those officers work into the evening would mean a quicker response when residents call with complaints.

Rice said another possibility is creating a "preferred arrest policy" that would target repeat offenders. Rice conceded that will make it so "hot" for the homeless they'll go elsewhere, but it will help the Lealman neighborhood.

"We have a bunch of bums that are destroying the quality of life and lowering the property values," Rice said. "The 28th Street corridor from the city (of St. Petersburg) to 62nd Avenue is bad."

Residents in that area have complained for months that the homeless there are destroying their neighborhood, making threats, and drinking, urinating, defecating and having sex in public.

The situation was bad enough, resident Genny Howington said, when the Solid Rock Church was the sole provider of food for the homeless. But she said it's gotten worse now that a second soup kitchen opened a few hundred yards from the Solid Rock.

"They're like maggots," Howington said. "We're stuck with them in the community."

Elderly residents are terrified, she said. Some are afraid to go outside and others are selling their homes.

"There's something very wrong when the vulnerable are being taken advantage of and are afraid to come out of their houses because of a bunch of drunks," Howington said. "We live with scum. ... It's a cesspool."

Sheriff's Deputy Paul Taylor, one of the community policing officers, agreed that many of the homeless in that portion of Lealman are "hardcore," rather than families or people temporarily down on their luck.

Many are homeless by choice, he said. Others have mental health issues. Still others resist going to shelters because they don't want to obey the rules.

Deputies, he said, are called to the area "a lot" to deal with issues. Many arrests are made under the county's open container rule, he said.

"It's an area that kind of draws the homeless because of the day labor and soup kitchens that have opened up," Taylor said.

Frank Bowman, the county's new omsbudsman for the east Lealman area, has been working on the problem for several months.

"What we have here is an exaggerated condition of homelessness," Bowman said. These are the homeless that shelters turn away and whom advocates admit they can't and won't serve, he said.

It may sound cold-hearted, Bowman said, but that section of Lealman has created an "excellent habitat for those people who do not wish to be part of society."

Todd said, "I don't know how you deal with people who deliberately don't want to get help."

But the countywide task force will try, she said.

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