Mayor serves meals, listens to homeless
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Soon after Pasadena Presbyterian's string band belted out Do Lord, Mayor Rick Baker said a 40-second grace.
Then he got busy carrying corn chips, ham-and-turkey sandwiches and salad to about 150 hungry people at St. Vincent de Paul's evening meal.
"So far, I haven't spilled anything," Baker said 10 minutes into the job.
Still wearing a shirt and tie, the mayor mingled with the homeless and working poor, listened to their problems Thursday and tried to get a perspective on people who rarely have clout at City Hall.
"I want to learn," Baker said. "It's as simple as that."
Steve Kersker, an advocate for the homeless and mentally ill, invited Baker and City Council Chairwoman Rene Flowers to St. Vincent de Paul, a downtown food center that serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and breakfast five days a week.
A rain-related car problem kept Flowers from her Monday night visit. She said Tuesday she is rescheduling.
As it has for years, the presence of street people downtown continues to concern businesses, residents and officials.
Two months ago, a police crackdown resulted in numerous arrests for trespassing and warnings about the use of shopping carts, which homeless people often get from markets and use to carry their things.
Kersker went before the City Council in June, asking for help in establishing a temporary, emergency shelter for seriously mentally ill people who may be disruptive enough to be barred from most havens.
Invitations to Baker and Flowers stemmed partly from the police action and Kersker's council appearance. The idea is to improve communication among all involved.
"It's hard to yell at someone you know," Kersker said.
Meanwhile, Kersker wrote a week ago to Mel Martinez, the federal Housing and Urban Development secretary, asking for his help in setting up an emergency haven.
Baker said he as yet has taken no position on the idea.
Kersker used a bullhorn to introduce Baker at dinner. The diners responded with what seemed to be sincere applause, punctuated with a few whistles and one short, sharp boo.
"Everyone was amazed that he came," Kersker said.
Some skepticism did surface, though.
"Four years from now when he's gone, people will still be homeless," said Robert Palmer, 37, who was volunteering in the kitchen. Palmer has pulled himself up: He is a graduate of the Boley Centers program and now maintains his own apartment.
Baker listened intently to more than a half-dozen people who wanted to talk about their problems or philosophies. He was able to give at least one man a good tip.
Kenneth S. Mazyck Sr. said he wasn't paid for his work after being recruited for a job at an informal labor pool. Mazyck, 59, who has been sleeping on the streets, said the mayor told him to check with Gulf Coast Legal Services, which provides assistance to the poor.
Lawyer Lydia Castle said Friday the agency would take the case.
It's unusual for city officials to visit St. Vincent de Paul dinners, or other meal deliveries serving the homeless. But they are seldom invited, said Virginia Rowell, the city's manager of social service programs. She accompanied the mayor on Thursday.
"I'n not trying to be idealistic, but it was a real good example, in my opinion, of sitting down and communicating and trying to look at a problem from all sides and sharing the resources each of you has," Rowell said.
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