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Special report: The homeless struggle

Police slash open tents to roust the homeless

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN and ALISA ULFERTS
Published January 20, 2007


photo
A man who identified himself only as Tommy, left, and Ken Argo hang around a campsite on 15th Street in St. Petersburg on Friday after police officers destroyed many of the tents or took them altogether.

  • Video of the raid Note: video contains sensitive language.
  • [Times photo: Lara Cerri]
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    ST. PETERSBURG - City officials raided two homeless camps Friday afternoon, seizing more than 20 tents and further rattling a community still shaken from the slayings of two of its own.

    Those who refused to get out of their tents or remove their belongings watched as two dozen police and fire officials sliced the tops of the tents away from their bases, tossed them into a truck and drove off. Some said they didn't have enough time to get out before the officials began to cut with scissors, box cutters and other blades.

    "I was in the tent when they started cutting," said Ken Argo, 54, who said he was asleep when police arrived. "It was very reckless of them."

    The whole operation took less than 10 minutes.

    The raid was the city's latest attempt to deal with the highly visible tent camps that have sprung up in recent weeks and a homeless population that is becoming increasingly organized and close-knit. Last week the city shut down a tent city on Fourth Avenue N after it said it helped about 100 of its residents get social services, including rent vouchers and bus tickets to cities where relatives or friends could help.

    Those who didn't get or refused services soon set up their tents at one of two locations, Fifth Avenue N at 15th Street or Fifth Avenue N at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

    But fire officials soon observed a host of fire code violations at the two satellite tent cities, said Lt. Rick Feinberg, a spokesman for the Fire and Rescue Department. People were smoking and cooking in their tents, he said. The tents were too close together, too close to public thoroughfares, and they didn't have fire extinguishers, he said.

    Feinberg said the homeless also failed to get the required permits for their tents, which were set up on the public right of way.

    "They were all in violation of codes," Feinberg said. "No one submitted plans for preparations for these two tent cities."

    It's not clear if all the fire codes the city cited indeed apply. The code requiring a permit specifies tents greater than 120 square feet, which is larger than the tents used by most of the homeless. And a state fire statute initially cited by the city doesn't deal with tents, said a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal.

    Still, city officials said their job is to protect and that there were significant safety concerns at the two locations, including danger from heavy traffic. City officials also said the homeless were given the chance to remove their belongings from the tents and were offered mats at a nearby shelter.

    Rather than arrest or get in physical altercations with those who refused, the officers cut the tents, said Deputy Mayor Dave Metz.

    "The tents were retained for evidence," Metz said.

    The city's action outraged the homeless community, which said that instead of taking away tents, the police officers should have been searching for the people who killed two homeless men early Wednesday.

    "And now they're putting all these people in jeopardy again," said Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries. The reason the homeless cluster in tents is for safety, Wright said.

    Metz acknowledged the criticism but said the city did what it had to do. "I think you always have those implications, but our primary concern was safety."

    Wright said that advocates for the homeless, who met Friday with the city to discuss things like getting fire extinguishers, plan to sue the city over the destruction of the tents and will seek an injunction to prevent another raid.

    "We're getting more tents," Wright said.

    "We're bringing down the big guns now. We're gonna sue 'em."

    Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472. Alisa Ulferts can be reached at ulferts@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2379.

    [Last modified February 8, 2007, 11:17:09]


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