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Special report: The homeless struggle

Duo's message: Get off streets

A police officer and intervention specialist make the rounds, checking on St. Petersburg's homeless.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published February 18, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Clifford Darling, left, talks with Richard Shireman of Operation PAR near 20th Street S. Shireman suggests rehab for Darling.

Multimedia report: The Homeless Struggle

ST. PETERSBURG - It isn't even 9:30 a.m., but Clifford Darling's speech is already a little slurred from drinking Steel Reserve when he sees the police pull up by the railroad tracks.

Officer Richard Linkiewicz and his partner, Richard Shireman, an intervention specialist with Operation PAR, are doing their daily round of checks on the city's homeless. For the past year, they've been the face of the Police Department to these people.

Darling, who keeps most of his stuff in a garbage bag and a baby stroller near the railroad tracks at Third Avenue S and 20th Street, is stop No. 1.

"How're you doing?" Shireman asks Darling.

Darling says he has trouble breathing these days. Also, another homeless man named Gator attacked him last night and tried to steal his stuff. Other than that, things are going pretty well.

Linkiewicz and Shireman then make a pitch to persuade Darling to enter a rehabilitation facility.

"Don't you want to get off the streets? You can do it, brother," says Linkiewicz, an 18-year veteran.

Darling shrugs, but finally relents, telling the pair to pick him up tomorrow morning.

Linkiewicz and Shireman promise him they'll show, then go on to their next stop. The next day, Darling follows up and agrees to get help. By the end of the workday, they'll have spoken to several dozen other homeless people, making the same pitch: Get off the streets, get some help.

They speak to 1,400 people every year.

They start their workdays early, when most homeless people are still sober enough to listen to advice on rehabilitation programs and treatment. But it's hard for those on the street - many of them have mental illnesses or drug addictions - to take the helping hand.

Consider Thomas Reed, a man with a broken right leg who lives under a road near Tropicana Field amid piles of garbage, cigarette butts and spray-painted "No Trespassing" signs. Linkiewicz and Shireman ask him to accept help; he says he'd rather take a bus to the northern part of the county.

Later, at Williams Park downtown, they see a man named Allen Mason. Just a few days ago, he had agreed to get help for his alcoholism. But now, he's back on the streets, saying it didn't work out.

Linkiewicz and Shireman try again. They drive him to the Turning Point.

Just before getting out, Mason tells them: "Thanks for not giving up on me."

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 20:16:42]


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