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New housing authority loitering signs irk residents

At a housing complex, residents say the rules make them feel like inmates. Directors say they have safety in mind.

By CASEY CORA
Published September 10, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Eva Shaw couldn't sleep.

It wasn't the air conditioner clunking in the tidy solitude of her one-bedroom apartment that kept the 68-year-old awake.

And it wasn't the rash of crimes that have taken place in and around the Graham-Rogall housing complex at 325 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S over the 20 years she has lived there.

It was the signs. The ones posted in the lobby earlier that day: "No Loitering, Lingering, Hanging Around Idly."

"How can you loiter where you live?" she asked.

The signs were put up for safety reasons, said Tim Shepherd, spokesman for Pinellas County and St. Petersburg housing authorities. A clear lobby means easier access for visitors and emergency responders who make frequent trips to the 486-unit complex, which houses low-income elderly, disabled and mentally challenged people in two buildings.

When Pinellas County and St. Petersburg housing authorities joined to run the facility in 2005, the Board of Commissioners tried to clamp down on security procedures and lease enforcement, Shepherd said.

But Shaw, a vocal critic of policies past and present, said the tightening of security also clamps down on residents' freedom.

She said management encourages residents to move away from the front porch and lobby and into other common areas, such as a billiards room, a television room and a group kitchen. "Herded like sheep" is the way she describes it.

In the television room, two black love seats sit vacant in the warm and windowless room. There's a fake plant, framed pictures of flowers, pale blue walls, and humidity, but no television.

In another common room, a three-piece furniture set goes unused, along with a table and a group of folding chairs.

"Might as well be the back of the bus," Shaw said.

In the ceramics room, four women in motorized wheelchairs gathered Thursday to work on ceramics projects, gossip and complain.

Shirley Windsor, clutching her black chihuahua, Nikki, said that she doesn't get downstairs much from her apartment.

When she does, she said, she likes to sit on the front porch, but only for about 20 minutes.

But a security guard from Excelsior Defense always tells her to move along or she'll get written up to management.

"Go ahead and write me up," she said she tells them. "Make sure you spell my name right."

"We're either inmates or patients," added 51-year-old Donna Alpaugh. "I'm waiting for our striped suits."

In response to Shaw's complaints, Shepherd said the signs will either be reworded or removed.

Shepherd defended the state of public housing in the county.

"We're in the top quality of housing authorities in the country," Shepherd said. "We know what we're doing."

A national test graded the city and county agencies as "high performers" based on factors like the physical conditions of their buildings, financial indicators, management operations and resident satisfaction. Both agencies received overall scores of 95 out of 100 on the four-part public housing assessment test, conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

No violent crimes have been reported so far this year at the Graham-Rogall complex, but police spokesman George Kajtsa said they respond "numerous times" to "various crises every day."

This year, five people were taken to St. Anthony's Hospital under the Baker Act, a state law that allows police officers to bring those who appear likely to harm themselves or others because of a mental illness into hospitals for evaluation.

"These people need help, not demands," Shaw said. "They're old and afraid of getting kicked out."

Vector Properties, a St. Petersburg realty company, has made a multimillion-dollar offer to purchase the property from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. However, Shepherd stressed that even after the sale, it will be up to residents whether to stay or go.

"It will remain affordable," Shepherd said. "A sale is not going to put residents on the street. Residents won't see much of a change."

That's just what Eva Shaw expected.

"Nobody's listening," she said. "It never changes."

Darrell Irions, the executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, could not be reached for comment.

Casey Cora can be reached at 727 580-1542 or at cora@sptimes.com.