Pinellas tent city now ghost town

Published May 3, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The last residents of the officially sanctioned tent city have moved out.

Nine homeless men and women packed their things Tuesday evening and headed to hotels, a temporary stop on the way to apartments, social workers said.

Their departure ends a tumultuous period for the city, flamed by bouts of anger, fear and unrest. But it's no reason to cry victory. Thousands remain homeless in Pinellas County, officials say.

"We don't look at this as the ultimate solution, " said St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Go Davis. "This is one piece."

In all, 107 people called the grassy lot on Fourth Avenue N home, the city said. These were people who had lived in previous tent cities.

Eight people eventually abandoned their tents, according to the city. Twenty-seven were evicted for violating curfew or drinking. And 72 were placed somewhere - a home, an apartment, a treatment center.

"A lot of people just needed a friend, " said Sheila Lopez, the Catholic Charities chief operating officer in charge of the Fourth Avenue tent city, which operated for 48 days. "They needed an ear and someone to offer some guidance."

But despite hopes to the contrary, no one living on Fourth Avenue was sent to the temporary shelter the city sees as a longer-term solution.

That site, at the former Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters, is not yet ready and may not open until November.

Talks for a similar shelter in St. Petersburg are very preliminary.

And none of it accounts for the more than 25 people staying inside a church on 54th Avenue S, or the thousands of others scattered across the county.

Among some advocates for the homeless, it all raises the question: Why did the tent city have to close in the first place?

Resources are running thin as was the public's will, city officials say. More than 300 people who attended a recent homeless summit agreed tents were not an answer.

But opinions were still divided Wednesday.

"The need is increasing for safe space for people to stay temporarily, " said the Rev. Kim Wells, who is housing 27 homeless people inside the Lakewood United Church of Christ. "Yet, ironically, the city is closing its effort to meet that need."

Instead, the city has made future tent cities illegal, and when there's enough shelter space, camping on public property will be illegal as well. The City Council today will discuss whether to beef up its ordinances related to panhandling.

It's part of a big picture response, they say: Help those who want help, and do what's best for the city overall.

Wednesday afternoon, an advocate for the homeless and two people who had been living at the 54th Avenue church pitched two tents along the Fourth Avenue site, protesting before television news cameras.

Eric Rubin, Steve Welch and Debra Snively said they would remain, in defiance of the city and the no-trespassing signs on the chain-link fence that fronts the lot.

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said he did not anticipate any arrests as of Wednesday afternoon. The city attracted national criticism when police slashed the tents of some homeless people Jan. 19.

"At this time, we are monitoring the situation, " Proffitt said.

Around the corner, more than a dozen homeless people tried to find shade under Interstate 375.

Abhi Raghunathan contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com.