City targets homeless again

St. Petersburg is adding new rules aimed at the homeless, especially a tent city outside City Hall.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - For months, just a few feet from the steps of City Hall, a makeshift encampment has grown. Dozens of homeless people now sleep along the sidewalk and store their belongings in sleeping bags, old suitcases and shopping carts.

They aren't breaking any laws, according to police. But now city leaders want to change the laws to get rid of them.

Strict new ordinances would expand a ban on panhandling, give the city the power to seize private property from the homeless and forbid people from sleeping, lying down or even reclining on public rights of way in downtown St. Petersburg.

The City Council will discuss the proposals at an 8:30 a.m. meeting today. Mayor Rick Baker says he supports the plan.

"I think we need to continue our efforts to help folks in our community that want to work toward independence," Baker said. "We also need to do things to protect the quality of life in our city."

But advocates for the homeless and several of the people who sleep just outside City Hall said the new rules would just make their lives even harder.

"Even an animal can lie down and sleep where it wants to," said Lewis Maines, 53, a homeless man who's been outside City Hall since October. "What they're telling us is that we don't have the same rights as animals."

The proposals came out of a council session in December. Former council member Bill Foster said the situation near City Hall moved him to propose the changes, as had complaints from downtown business owners.

"Quite honestly, St. Petersburg has become a little too comfortable for people who choose this (homelessness) as a lifestyle," Foster said. "I don't want St. Petersburg to be comfortable for them. I want them to choose this lifestyle somewhere else."

The city entered the national spotlight last year after police seized and slashed tents used by the homeless for shelter. After a national outcry, Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon called the raids a mistake, and the fallout from eventually led to the creation of Pinellas Hope, an outdoor shelter.

But the city also enacted stricter rules that targeted the homeless and were designed to outlaw new impromptu tent cities from forming on sidewalks. The ordinances also prohibited people from sleeping on rights of way if shelter space was available.

The new proposals go even further in the limits placed on homeless people in downtown by expanding the section of downtown where panhandling is prohibited. The council is slated to hold a final hearing and possibly approve the new limits on panhandling today.

The two other proposed changes will have their first readings today, meaning even if they are approved the council will have to pass them a second time before they become law.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.