Special report: The homeless struggle
Moving day for the homeless
By ALISA ULFERTS
Published December 30, 2006
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Richard "Bigginz" Carlson, 23, sits in his chair as Viola Williams, 48, packs for the move Friday to an empty lot nearby.
For weeks, the cluster of donated tents under the Interstate 375 overpass at Fifth Avenue N and 15th Street has provided a sense of community for those who, by definition, don't belong.
Like a majority of their fellow Floridians, most of the 30 or so homeless people gathered here hail from somewhere else, like New Jersey, Vermont or Missouri. They came to St. Petersburg to join family or friends or because here is where the car broke down. Many struggle with substance abuse or mental illness; they are paradoxically hardened and fragile.
They've never had much, but ever since several church groups handed out tents this month, the homeless of St. Petersburg have had each other.
"It's like a big family out here," said Richard "Bigginz" Carlson, 23, who spends his days in an overstuffed chair someone dragged onto the sidewalk for him.
Yet for city officials, the sudden cluster of tents adds visibility and legal complexity to a problem that has swelled in recent years. That's not expected to change even after Friday, when the tenters moved away from the overpass to a nearby lot owned by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The result of the makeshift metropolis is a new effort by the city to find a vacant building to use as an emergency shelter and a partner to help run it.
"This will be a first for us," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett, who said that he and local government and volunteer groups have made this a priority.
Bennett said the camp's location - near the soup kitchen and a public mental health clinic - is better than other places in the city where homeless have congregated in the past. There are meals and showers. Possessions can be kept in order within tents. In one case, a homeless man organized his tent according to the principles of feng shui.
But despite the goodwill of some of the tenters, who dance to drums and flutes and offer each other comfort, there's no mistaking this homeless camp for a feel-good hippie commune.
The tents have put the area - across the street from the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and St. Anthony's Hospital - on the map for drug dealers who drive or pedal by to exploit the addicts. And it has put the city's police on guard, as they try to guess what's going on behind the opaque nylon and struggle to balance safety with personal property rights. At least one assault has been reported.
"We've never really dealt with a tent situation before," said Lt. Sharon Carron of the city's downtown patrol unit.
But the tent situation is here, and it's putting St. Petersburg in the same league as cities like Portland, Seattle and Ventura, Calif., which have permanent or seasonal tent cities for the homeless.
The cities have names like Dignity Village, River Haven and Sanctuary City. ("Whistle City" has been suggested for the St. Petersburg camp, in honor of the pan flute its residents enjoy playing). And, along with the numbers of homeless themselves, the camps are on the rise - not just because they give shelter but because they get attention, said Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"It has made homelessness more visible and it's got more people talking about it," Stoops said.
Another reason for the increase in camps is their popularity with the homeless. They offer safety in numbers and a chance to self-govern, Stoops said.
"There's a sense of community. Homeless folks are so tired of having social workers tell them what to do or religious people preaching at them," Stoops said. He said some homeless "just want to sleep and eat and do their day labor or panhandle and we can't really force them to do what we want them to do."
Indeed, there has been some tension among some of St. Petersburg's homeless and between them and the advocates who try to help them. Some homeless mutter the word "snitch" when referring to those who have challenged the methods of Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries or even the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Wright helped secure the lot for the camp to move. He said it's just a temporary solution until more shelter beds can be secured. And despite the concerns of some homeless, Wright said the new camp will be fair.
"It will be democratically run," he promised.
Brad Bradford isn't convinced. He's a former accountant who came to the streets courtesy of a daily crack habit, but who has since cleaned up. He said he stays on the streets to help those who need him, and was even elected an "elder" by some 30 homeless who signed a petition.
Bradford said that too often, the homeless aren't given a seat at the table when their future is discussed - not by the city nor by nonprofit and faith-based advocates.
"They're not communicating back to the people," Bradford, 55, said of the city officials and advocates. Furthermore, officials don't like it when the homeless organize themselves, Bradford said.
"Every time we get leadership, they get a bus ticket out of town."
[Last modified February 8, 2007, 11:22:15]
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