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Can a city code make homeless vanish?
By HOWARD TROXLER
Published January 7, 2007
The temporary village that has sprung up on a vacant lot on Fourth Avenue North in St. Petersburg has about 50 tents.
Some of these are really just tarps tied to the chain-link fence running along the back of the lot, toward the interstate overpass.
Of the tents proper, some are of the smallest and most modest pup variety, just pieces of plastic and a stake. But others given by donors are nicer, modern camping rigs, and here and there stands a big, multioccupant affair.
Four blue portable toilets stand in a row just east of the tent city. At the southeast corner is a row of communal tents, where occupants can register, perhaps pick up a piece of donated clothing, or even get a haircut in a makeshift outdoor barber's chair.
This site is the property of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and since a week ago Friday it has been the relocated site of a gathering that previously existed beneath the overpass.
But last week St. Vincent de Paul got a notice from the city of St. Petersburg that it was violating city codes. Either the tent city must go, or St. Vincent de Paul will start being assessed fines.
On Friday morning, the Fourth Avenue site had taken on a bit of a circus atmosphere - not caused by the occupants, who for the most part went about their own affairs, but from everyone else.
St. Petersburg police officers conferred with St. Vincent de Paul representatives. They agreed that only the people already there and on an approved list could stay.
Maybe a dozen or so advocates for the homeless, representing various groups and philosophies, wandered around, conversing with occupants on a first-name basis.
I talked to a few occupants. They were happy to have a place to keep their stuff without it being stolen. They were glad to be able to get a full night's sleep without being rousted or attacked.
Several said they had minimum-wage jobs. I heard the term "first and last," meaning first and last month's rent, the ticket to nonhomeless status. "I'm working for my first and last," is the way to say it.
But some are mentally troubled or physically sick. There also have been a couple of burglaries in the neighborhood, which neighbors naturally attribute to the camp, although the occupants told me they are quick to point out troublemakers. They sign a code of conduct to stay there.
A sociology class from Eckerd College was on hand but was not allowed inside. The students stood on the sidewalk, conversing with occupants through the chain link.
Some of the advocates were upset, even at St. Vincent de Paul, for the rules keeping out newcomers and trying to discourage well-meaning citizens from pulling up on Fourth Avenue to make contributions. But St. Vincent de Paul was trying to balance the concerns of the city with its assistance to the occupants.
A retired engineer from Largo pulled up curbside with a trunk-load of blankets, jeans and shoes, and was upset when the police told him he could not enter. He had to park across the street and wait for word of mouth to travel. Soon, occupants were crossing the street to see him.
This week everybody will try to find places to relocate the occupants. But this is not going to go away magically. The city cannot wave a wand or cite a code and make the homeless disappear. Neither is there is enough room, not even a fraction of enough.