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Troubles haunt homeless advocate

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Bruce Wright is the city's best known homeless advocate. He challenges officials and stages demonstrations on behalf of those who are down on their luck, often resulting in coverage from the local media.

Recently, Wright has been ensnared in some legal cases that raise questions about his judgment and the effectiveness of his efforts.

In May, Wright was arrested by Gulfport police on a charge of driving with a suspended license. His license had been suspended after he failed to pay $400 a month in child support.

And financial disclosures from his divorce case provide a glimpse of how Wright spends money he collects from donations to the Refuge, which he opened in 1992 as a street ministry.

Wright, 50, spoke to the St. Petersburg Times after his May arrest. He said he could not avoid the arrest because he had to drive while helping out a client of the Refuge. Wright then stopped returning a reporter's calls.

In February, a judge revoked Wright's driver's license after he fell behind on $400 a month child support payments for his 13-year-old son. He was not supposed to be driving when he was pulled over on May 9 on Tangerine Avenue S in Gulfport.

Wright pleaded no contest to a charge of driving with a suspended license. He was adjudicated guilty by a judge and sentenced to community service.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court records from his divorce case show that Wright listed his monthly income as $2,667 in 2010 and his sole employer as the Refuge. He listed his monthly expenses as $3,455, including $400 for rent, $250 for a cell phone, $300 for food at home and $500 for meals outside. He also listed $500 for gasoline.

Wright said those expenses were all related to the Refuge. The cell phone bill was so high because he was locked into a contract, he said. He uses a volunteer's automobile to help others, he said.

Wright said the Refuge is funded solely by donations, which have slowed over the past few years as the economy tanked. Asked to share his finances with the Times, Wright said: "There's not a whole lot that I could describe to you. We are not taking in a whole lot right now."

Over the years, neighborhood leaders and city officials have challenged Wright's credentials and criticized how he runs his group, which has sometimes included a shelter.

While the city has long urged residents to donate to organizations that help the homeless rather than give beggars spare change, Wright's group is not on their list of recommended groups.

The Refuge has a contentious history with the city. In 1997, the city said it was a social service agency rather than a church, a ruling that would have forced the Refuge to move its downtown headquarters or stop feeding the homeless.

Three years later, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge ruled that the Refuge was indeed a church and could not be forced to move.

City Council member Leslie Curran described Wright as a renegade, someone who "would go against anything that the city intended to do."

Wright attended the University of South Florida in Tampa but did not complete his sociology degree. Wright received bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in theology from Jacksonville Theological Seminary, according to the school. The school is not accredited by the state.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892--2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

Troubles haunt homeless advocate 08/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 9:37pm]
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