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Special report: The homeless struggle

Homeless must move from St. Petersburg City Hall

The City Council passes two ordinances affecting the homeless.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 25, 2008

[Willie J. Allen, Jr. | Times]
"Hi my name is Tony Ferguson and I live at 405 15th Street North (St. Vincent De Paul)," said Ferguson to the City Council members on Thursday evening. Ferguson, a military Veteran, is homeless.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The makeshift homeless camp of bicycles, sleeping bags, boxes, shopping carts and barrels outside City Hall will be disappearing soon.

On Thursday, the City Council unanimously approved two ordinances that place tighter restrictions on homeless people's actions -- and belongings -- downtown.

The ordinances, which take effect Feb. 1, prohibit people from sleeping on public land during the day or leaving personal items along the public right of way, including sidewalks.

People whose belongings remain after Feb. 1 will be given a 36-hour warning before their items are seized, said Deputy Mayor David Metz. Items that are deemed hazardous will be removed immediately.

In separate action, the council approved a 90-day pilot program to pay for storage units at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter at a cost of $6,500. The units would be free for the homeless. Originally the city considered storage at two shelters and portable bathrooms.

After the vote on the restrictions, several homeless people and advocates stormed out of the meeting in anger.

"Cowards!" muttered Joyce McCarty.

"Thank you for making the city more fascist," yelled the Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless, before he stepped out.

Wright predicted the city would be hit with a rash of lawsuits from homeless people who believe their constitutional rights have been trampled by the laws.

But city attorney John Wolfe said the ordinances were mirrored after those in other cities, including Sarasota, which have been upheld by the courts.

About 30 people spoke before the vote. About half were in support; half were opposed.

Many of those pushing for the beefed-up restrictions on the homeless were business owners and downtown residents who said they are tired of loitering, panhandling, public urination and the unsightly mountain outside City Hall, running along Fifth Street and Second Avenue N.

Bill Mills, who owns a film production business, said he believes the city is being held hostage by the homeless.

"There are people who need help," he said. "I'm all for that. What I object to is the pile of garbage sitting out here on this corner."

The no-sleeping ordinance extends from 16th Street to the bay and from Fifth Avenue N to Fifth Avenue S. It also extends through the Central Avenue corridor to 31st Street.

Even though several people referred to the piles as junk, Melissa Mushol said they are mistaken.

"The stuff out there is our personal belongings," said Mushol, who said she was homeless off and on for 10 years until recently when she found an apartment.

After the meeting ended and the crowd dispersed, several homeless people said an upset Mushol was arrested for disorderly conduct for talking too loudly outside.

"See?" said Wright to a reporter. "This is the harassment we have to deal with."

[Last modified January 25, 2008, 08:43:31]

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