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Downtown poor stage protest at chamber

Some speak inside while about 40 march outside. They say the wealthy are insensitive to the poor and homeless.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It wasn't your typical Chamber of Commerce crowd.

Incensed at what they perceive as affluent business people either calling them names or ignoring them, about 40 poor people marched, carried signs and chanted Friday morning in front of the chamber building, 100 Second Ave. N.

About two dozen stood in a chamber board room where a group of downtown business leaders were holding their monthly meeting.

There was nothing confrontational and several of the demonstrators spoke.

"We got a lot of valuable information," said David Anderson, chairman of the chamber's Downtown Council, whose members work on issues affecting downtown businesses.

Afterward, the demonstrators marched through the BayWalk courtyard, chanting "Poverty is not a crime." At 9 a.m., they had the new mall mostly to themselves, although crews working on some stores still under construction watched curiously.

The activity was an unexpected manifestation of an old downtown issue that has resurfaced.

On one side are property owners, businesses and people who go downtown for entertainment. On the other are people who have little or no money and who stay on the streets, sometimes using buses to get to social service agencies.

Interaction between the sides is tentative at best. Each often views the other with suspicion, if not hostility.

Two elements fueled Friday's turnout, said Steve Kersker, an advocate for the homeless who organized the protest.

One was a reference to "vagrants" around Jannus Landing and Williams Park used in notes summarizing a Nov. 1 meeting of the Downtown Council and circulated to council members. Copies of the notes reached the streets.

"We protest that kind of language, because a lot of people have disabilities," Kersker said. "We want the city and the chamber to show more compassion."

The other issue, Kersker said, was a desire to win chamber participation in the Homeless Outreach Task Force, a relatively new organization formed to address the needs of a number of categories of needy people, including the homeless, the poor and those with a variety of physical and mental problems.

Kersker and City Council member Kathleen Ford, who helped start the task force a few months ago after talking with Kersker about the downtown poor, both said they believe the chamber will join the discussion.

"We're trying to get everyone to come to the table so it won't be an adversarial situation," said Ford, who is running for mayor.

Mike Littman, the chamber's business assistance director, said he was surprised that the demonstrators showed up in force.

"It was not the chamber's or the Downtown Council's intention to hurt anyone's feelings," he said.

"The business community realizes we have a problem. Let's learn about it. Let's solve it," he said.

In a letter Monday to Kersker, Littman said the chamber is "looking for solutions to help those . . . less fortunate and who, for whatever reasons, are deemed vagrants under long-standing definitions of the law."

Nonetheless, Littman said Friday, some people who stay on the streets downtown do cause problems. As an example, he pointed to a letter published in Wednesday's Neighborhood Times, in which the writer complained of aggressive panhandling toward a party of restaurant patrons.

Littman said he isn't sure what role, if any, the chamber might play in the Homeless Outreach Task Force.

"The chamber isn't a social services administration," he said. "We can't be all things to all people. The purpose of the chamber is to put money in the chamber members' pockets.

"We have a problem. And the business community is looking for someone to help solve that problem."

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