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Downtown Tampa homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC

Anne Collier, left, who works for the nonprofit Mental Health Care of Tampa, speaks Thursday with Lui DeGeorge at a park.

KATHLEEN FLYNN l Times

Anne Collier, left, who works for the nonprofit Mental Health Care of Tampa, speaks Thursday with Lui DeGeorge at a park.

TAMPA — As Anne Collier walked past a line of men sitting on a low fence by the Salvation Army on Thursday afternoon, a man asked why she was there.

"I'm telling people about the Republican National Convention," she said. "Do you know about it?"

That's what I'm trying to find out, the man said. She handed him a map detailing downtown streets that will be closed to pedestrians.

Collier, a case manager for the nonprofit Mental Health Care of Tampa, spends her days talking to homeless people on the streets and in parks and woods. Normally, she refers people to services and ultimately helps get some into apartments.

Starting Monday, her message changed focus: How to stay safe during the RNC. Part of a plan headed by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, Collier and about 10 of her co-workers hit the streets armed with maps and options.

Hillsborough has nearly 700 chronically homeless, most living in or near downtown. Many said they feared they will be caught in a sweep by law enforcement and taken to jail.

That won't happen, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"They're part of our community," McElroy said. "Whether the RNC is here or not."

But authorities' actions speak otherwise, homeless people say.

The John F. Germany Public Library, where many spend their days, closed last week. Police have told the homeless they must move their belongings, stashed in bushes.

John Consono, 49, said he has been homeless for the past two years because of mental health issues and a tough job market. He had heard on radio news that officers were making space at Orient Road Jail for expected arrests during the RNC. That space, he said, isn't just for protestors.

"They don't want homeless people here, period," he said.

Lui DeGeorge, 76, said police told him he would need to stay out of the area north of Columbus Drive, east of Adamo Drive, and west of N Boulevard.

As he sat under a tree squarely within those boundaries, he said he had no plans to leave the area, where he has lived for most of 12 years. The shelter at the Salvation Army was full, he said.

"What we want to know," DeGeorge said, "is where are we supposed to go?"

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city has no policy to remove homeless people.

McElroy said Officer Dan McDonald, the Police Department's homeless liaison, has been scouting for beds at facilities that serve homeless people and telling officers so they could send people to these beds.

McElroy said the Police Department wants to make sure out-of-town visitors don't take the spaces, squeezing out locals who usually sleep at shelters.

Other organizations increased services for homeless people, including offering extended hours through the day at the Salvation Army, and space for homeless people to stow belongings there and at Celebration for Hope, a faith-based group focused on helping homeless people.

And if a hurricane does spin into Tampa, the Mental Health Care team would hit the streets with new directions for homeless: Get to the cold weather shelters.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Downtown Tampa homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 10:08pm]
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