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Deputies round up, evict squatters

Officers dog the homeless to move to treatment centers or shelters, or anywhere but the property where they trespass.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2000


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- Nine Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies marched into the dense woods behind commercial Hillsborough Avenue, searching for the lawless.

Minutes later they returned with their shuffling suspects, five in all, haggard and glum. Deputies took their photos and documented their charges: Trespassing on private property.

"You all know the rules," Deputy Steve Ferreira told the quiet group of homeless people, clutching pink copies of the official warning. "If you stay here, you're going to be arrested."

The roundup was the latest move in deputies' heightened effort to evict people who camp illegally on private and public property. Business owners and a church pastor have complained that the numerous homeless in the area are causing problems, Ferreira said.

So the plan, said the deputy, is to dog the homeless until they move into treatment centers, shelters or simply go away.

"We're going to shift them around for a while," he said, standing beneath a bridge on Hillsborough Avenue at Hanley Road, where deputies later ordered three more homeless people to take their belongings and leave within the hour.

"There are communities all over this country that don't have this kind of problem," he said. "We're going to become one of those communities."

Patricia Frame, told to pack up her tented home and walk off, said she never made trouble and had nowhere else to go.

"We were quiet, and we didn't bother anybody," said Frame, 47.

James Joyce, supervisor of the county's homeless recovery program, said he understands the community's distress over the encampments, but stricter law enforcement isn't the answer.

"I certainly do not believe in criminalizing the homeless," he said.

Tom Guth, administrator for St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, said the church has seen fewer people coming for free meals and clothes since deputies started ousting them. Options for the homeless are narrowing, he said.

"Where do they go if they can't sleep in the woods?" Guth said.

"The streets," said day laborer Ray Owens, 55, sauntering off toward Hillsborough Avenue with a backpack slung over his shoulder.

Thursday's trespass warnings were issued after Ferreira tracked down the two property owners of the undeveloped land south of Hillsborough Avenue and west of Kelly Road. Proprietors Dr. Dipak Mukerjee, a St. Petersburg cardiologist, and Steve Malhotra, an engineer in Indian Rocks Beach, stood back and signed the warnings next to their property Thursday afternoon.

They said they didn't know about the squatters until Ferreira called them. The encampments open them up to liability and code violations, the owners said.

"Take everything you can because we're going to throw out all your stuff and demolish whatever else is left," Malhotra told them.

That meant Kendall Taylor, 63, had to abandon the sturdy structure he built two years ago from scavenged scrap in the forest behind Bojangles restaurant.

"That's okay with me," Taylor said quietly, staring at the ground.

The Rev. Bruce Turner of West Gate Baptist Church, who teamed up with Ferreira a few months ago after noticing makeshift tents and mounds of trash behind his church on Kelly Road, said the campers won't help themselves or move on without a push.

"If they're willing to go to Salvation Army (shelter), we've even paid the bill," he said. "These people who are in the woods don't want to go to Salvation Army and want the privacy to drink."

The evictions present a larger issue, Guth said.

"You're asking a question of the ages: How do we get those that have no homes into homes or off the streets?"

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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