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Park to test wills, goodwill

Williams Park threatens to become the next battleground between the homeless and a city.

By ELENA LESLEY
Published January 27, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - On any day, human bundles dot the greenery of Williams Park.

Masses of multicolored blankets, plastic sacks, sleeping bags and even cardboard obscure the homeless sleepers, who take advantage of the daylight's safety to get some rest.

But ringing the park, empty storefronts have started to come to life. Progress Energy's gleaming new building hovers above, and shop windows advertise high-end businesses on the way.

The revitalization could make Williams Park the next battleground between the city and its homeless population.

"It looks so much worse in Williams Park because they're so visible," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "It's going to get contentious."

The homeless that frequent the park sense the brewing hostility. They already have been kicked off most sidewalks and relegated to using just one awning - and only after 10 p.m.

"It would be devastating to the homeless community," said Eddie "Metalhead" Milburn, 19. With rumors circulating that the city wants to get the homeless out of the park, "we've been trying to make things nicer, keeping our stuff neat, picking up trash," he said.

But organizing piles of trash sacks and clothes probably won't be enough.

Safety in numbers

Williams Park, in the middle of downtown St. Petersburg, has drawn homeless people for years. They see it as a haven, especially now, in the wake of the city's recent raid on tent camps and the slayings of two homeless men earlier this month.

While the park has many advantages - public bathrooms, easy access to transportation, even an exposed city electrical outlet - its main draw is location.

"It's right in the middle of the city, and there are lots of people around," said Sue Bell, 53, who came to the park a couple of weeks ago. "It's strength in numbers. If anything happens to a particular homeless person, there are people around to help."

The dangers of the street have forced many homeless people into a nocturnal existence. They sleep in the park during the day, when people are around, and wander the streets at night when the park is closed.

"People just throw out their sheets here, make themselves comfortable," said Mary Seitz, 45, who has stayed at the park sporadically over the past two years. "Around dark, things start to get rough."

Those who have spent some time in the park know who can be trusted, and who can't. Alliances form.

From a distance, Milburn and his park friends looked as if they were having a picnic on a recent Friday. Nearly a dozen sat cross-legged on blankets, chatting and listening to music. But they are there every day. And everything they own is spread out with them.

Paul "Elvis" Jenkins, 57, interrupted the group with a song.

"Lord almighty, I feel my temperature rising," he crooned, in a raspy voice. "Higher and higher, it's burning through to my soul."

"Man, you really shouldn't sing," Milburn said, teasing his jumpsuit-clad friend. "You need a cough drop."

"Oh, yeah, why do people give me money then?" Elvis fired back.

"They must be drunk," Milburn muttered.

In the park, everyone knows everyone.

The clowns. The nuts. The drug users. The troublemakers.

There's a rhythm to life, a taste of stability and familiarity. On certain days the "coffee man" comes and hands out warm drinks. Other times it's the "chicken man," a philanthropist with poultry to spare.

If they lose the park, the regulars worry they'll lose their community.

Loss of sympathy

Some business owners with shops nearby don't see it as a community worth preserving.

Jermone Gilbert, who owns Gilbert Jewelers Inc., said older customers are afraid to come to his shop. When Gilbert opened 60 years ago, the park actually attracted many elderly St. Petersburg residents, he said.

"It was a beautiful park," he said. "There were lovely green benches and band concerts daily."

David and Melissa Griffith, who opened Lightning Fast Jewelry Repair three years ago, were blunt in their assessment of the homeless.

"They're ruining business," David Griffith said. "They accost women, intimidate people, demand money."

The park is a hangout for bums, Melissa Griffith added.

The Griffiths weren't always so hard-bitten.

When they opened their shop, Melissa Griffith would routinely offer the homeless coffee. Her husband tried to recruit them for jobs, and the couple even took in a kid who said he wanted to join the Army.

But the coffee situation got out of control. "People were coming in here, demanding coffee all the time," Melissa said.

And David didn't get any takers on his employment opportunities. "It was always, 'I can't do it today, I'll come in tomorrow,' or 'can I get an advance on my paycheck?' and they'd never show up."

Though the kid they took in did end up finding a job, the Griffiths kicked him out after he got into a verbal confrontation with a family friend.

Now the Griffiths have little sympathy left for the people who urinate and defecate outside their shop - often in the middle of the day - and try to hawk their food stamps for money.

"I'd like to see laws enacted that keep people from being subjected to this kind of harassment," David Griffith said.

The city hasn't revealed any significant solutions to the homeless problem, but that hasn't curtailed the plans for the park.

A new Wednesday farmers market will have a four-week trial starting in February. Progress Energy is considering donating more lighting to the area and officials are looking into ways to move the major bus transfer terminal from around the park.

"We want to have a nicer park, a more active park," said Mayor Rick Baker.

The intention, while unspoken, is clear: The homeless will have to leave.

Staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Elena Lesely can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com.