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Homeless visibility affecting business

Business people say St. Petersburg's carefully polished new image is tarnished.

By JON WILSON
Published March 1, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - In a way, they feel like a forgotten legion.

Business people in and near downtown, for several years part of an economic and social revival in the city's oldest neighborhoods, say the ongoing homeless issue is more than an annoying burr.

To hear them talk, it is more like spreading poison.

They use words such as "lawlessness" to describe the situation, particularly in reference to the tent city on 18th Street between First Avenue N and Central Avenue.

On Friday, the eve of this weekend's Homeless Summit, about 30 tents were up, some bulging with clothing, blankets and other belongings.

Jim Longstreth is a past president of the Grand Central Business District, and current president of the adjacent Historic Kenwood neighborhood association.

He has a real estate office in the district, which for the past seven years has benefited from an energetic business revival. Longstreth has been part of it. He and other business owners worry that the tent city is undoing all the effort.

"It completely negates it," Longstreth said, citing more than $1-million he said the city government has spent in the past few years on streetscaping and changing the area's image.

"Then we allow tent cities right at our front gate," he said.

Damaged property, alleys used as toilets, "snatch and grab" crime and harassment of potential customers are among the problems business people blame, at least in part, on the homeless street population, Longstreth said.

Grand Central is a corridor that includes Central Avenue and the First avenues N and S, from 19th to 31st streets.

The heart of downtown has its own issues, perhaps beginning with the urban camping that takes place in Williams Park. Business owners nearby have complained for years.

Danny O'Brien is a downtown businessman who owns a historic hotel.

He said it sparked interest from a major chain wanting to upgrade it. He believes the homeless issue has put any deal on hold.

"They were chasing me. Now they need more time," O'Brien said.

"Reckless feeding," O'Brien's term for freelance food handouts in Williams Park and elsewhere, only makes the problem worse, he said.

Such activity both encourages people to hang out and tends to keep them away from organized programs that help the homeless, he said.

Jeanne Resende, once a marketing specialist and now a financial systems entrepreneur, said she is familiar with businesses in and near downtown.

She said she senses a fearfulness that extends into residential neighborhoods. Open-air food handouts "are circumventing the need (for the homeless) to be evaluated," Resende said.

Most business people say they are not down on all homeless people.

"I fully support the ones who want help. What has evolved out of all this, almost half the homeless don't want help," Longstreth said.

City Council member Leslie Curran, the Homeless Summit co-chair, agrees.

"There's the homeless issue, and there's tent city, and in my opinion, it's almost two separate issues," Curran said.

[Last modified March 1, 2007, 00:11:58]


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