Mayor: Tent raid was not my plan

Critics have assailed St. Petersburg for last week's slashings at homeless camps .

Published January 22, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Mayor Rick Baker says he had no idea that top city officials, including the police chief and one of his deputy mayors, planned a raid on homeless camps Friday in which police slashed tents being used for shelter.

"I did not know that the operation had occurred until it occurred," Baker said Monday. "I was aware that the fire marshal had identified a very grave concern. I did not know the specifics to the solution."

In some cases, police officers tore apart the tents while homeless people were still inside, cutting the fabric with scissors, knives and box cutters. The raid on the "tent city" at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue N came just days after two homeless men were slain, and jolted a community still frightened because the killers are still at large.

Videos of officers cutting apart tents have received hundreds of views on YouTube and other Web sites.

Baker spoke just hours after elected officials, including members of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, blasted the city's raids.

"What we saw on Friday night was an embarrassment for this city," St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett said at a news conference.

Baker neither condemned nor praised the actions of police and fire officials.

"I'm not going to talk about that," Baker said, adding he was concerned about potential legal threats made by homeless advocates.

After the raid, homeless advocates donated more tents, and the encampment re-emerged over the weekend. By Monday it contained more than two dozen tents.

Baker said he did not anticipate another raid because he was satisfied that safety concerns - like a lack of fire extinguishers - had been addressed.

He said attention now focused on the city's homeless had created an "opportunity" to search for solutions, even though the images of the raids had led to "some negatives."

The raid Friday was the city's latest attempt to deal with tent camps that have sprung up in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, the city shut down a tent city on Fourth Avenue N after it said it helped about 100 of its residents get social services such as rent vouchers.

Those who refused services or did not receive them soon set up their tents at Fifth Avenue N at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue N at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

By Monday, the King Street location was empty. But the other site was bigger than ever; about two dozen tents stretched for nearly a block along 15th Street.

Several homeless people at the site said Monday that they are still shaken by the raid and could no longer trust the city. The Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries called it "a shame."

"I was devastated," said Raymond Young, 66, who keeps the remnants of his old, cut-apart tent in a garbage bag. "I didn't know how they could do something like this."

The decision to raid the camps and cut tents was made during a meeting Friday of top city officials. Police Chief Chuck Harmon, Deputy Mayor David Metz, Maj. Melanie Bevan of the Police Department, Lt. Rick Feinberg of the Fire Department and several others gathered to discuss how to deal with the fire hazards they had seen at the homeless camps. Police and fire officials had gone to the camps Thursday night and warned people to take their tents down, but the tents had gone back up by Friday morning.

They talked about the lack of fire extinguishers, people smoking and cooking in tents and the risk of a fire spreading quickly through the camps, Harmon said Monday. The group quickly agreed to take the tents down, and seize them as evidence, Harmon said.

Harmon said the officials didn't want to arrest anyone or create a major confrontation. Then Bevan suggested just cutting the tents if someone protested by refusing to leave, and others agreed, Harmon said.

But Harmon said no one in the group talked about the fact that they were seizing or destroying private property.

"In hindsight we didn't discuss the actual property issue, and we probably should have taken that into consideration," Harmon said.

Harmon said people no longer smoke or cook in their tents. They also have fire extinguishers, Harmon said.

"I think the perception was not good of how and what we did," Harmon said. "I hope there's no need to ever do that again."

Times reporter Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.