Baker outlines new homeless plan

Published January 30, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG — Prodded to resolve the city’s growing homeless problem, Mayor Rick Baker has announced a strategy that combines the resources of government, business and faith-based groups.

The plan, unveiled at a hastily called news conference Tuesday, includes kicking in $150,000 in taxpayer funds for immediate help and planning a new shelter with as many as 200 beds to be open by next winter.

The strategy won’t solve homelessness in the city, Baker said, but it will provide a needed boost to outreach efforts. The message comes as criticism mounts that the city is not doing enough.

“When you have challenges, you have an opportunity to marshal resources and bring together people,” Baker said, standing in front of representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Catholic Charities, among others.

“When you enter a situation when you have difficulties, you take advantage of it.”

The $150,000 transitional assistance would come from the city, Baker said, and will be used to bolster emergency relocation aid to the city’s homeless for the next 90 days.

At the same time, a group led by St. Petersburg College President Carl Kuttler and Progress Energy Florida chief executive Jeff Lyash would begin to scour the county for more permanent shelter space. The shelter would not necessarily be built in St. Petersburg.

As part of Tuesday’s announcement, Baker said former Boeing CEO and city resident Harry Stonecipher has pledged up to $500,000 in matching money to pay for new shelter space. Other funds are expected to come from a combination of public and private entities. Stonecipher, 70, did not return a message left at his St. Petersburg condominium.

The plan also calls for a citywide summit on homelessness as well as a social services fair where homeless residents could receive medical examinations, job referrals and other assistance.

“All the ingredients are in place,” said Michael German, a regional coordinator with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal agency assisting the effort. “You’ve got everybody joined together.”

The announcement from City Hall on Tuesday deviated from a month of more deliberate moves, where city leaders attempted to balance the needs of the area’s homeless population against complaints from business owners around downtown.

The tip-toeing yielded anger from both sides, peaking when city officials slashed several tents used by homeless people Jan. 19.

Still, Baker sought to deflect praise for the potential solution, saying it bolsters an effort already underway to end homelessness in the county.

The comprehensive strategy won praise from one critic of the city’s previous inaction and continued skepticism from another.

“Today you can see your civic leaders standing before you united,” said City Council member Jamie Bennett, who last week criticized Baker for not offering a solution. On Tuesday, Bennett stood next to him during the news conference.

“We can do this,” Bennett said. “We just have to have the moral gumption to carry it through.”

Outside City Hall, an advocate for the homeless said he was puzzled that no one who is homeless had a say in Baker’s plan.

“Homeless people are more than happy to sit down and share their experiences,” Eric Rubin said. “Aren’t they the best ones to know what will work?”

Meanwhile, the city faces the threat of litigation for the police raid that resulted in the slashings of tents being used for shelter.

Darryl Rouson, the former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, is representing the Rev. Bruce Wright and his Refuge Ministries, as well as several homeless people who had their belongings destroyed and their tents damaged in the police raids.

On the same day that he attended Baker’s news conference, Rouson formally notified the city that it could face a lawsuit for civil rights violations that include destroying personal property without due process.

In an interview, Rouson said he was negotiating with the city.

“At this point we are in earnest discussion that may forestall any litigation,” Rouson said.

While Rouson attended the news conference, he gave it a mixed review.

“I wished that a homeless person had been invited to the conference, but it wasn’t my affair,” Rouson said. “We are responding today to an ugly event, but having said that I believe the mayor has great remorse for what happened and will be more determined and passionate toward a long-term solution.”

Staff writer Abhi Raghunathan contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.