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Homeless advocates accuse St. Petersburg of harassment

Robert Donohue, who is homeless, joins other homeless people for a protest Friday outside St. Petersburg City Hall.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Robert Donohue, who is homeless, joins other homeless people for a protest Friday outside St. Petersburg City Hall.

ST. PETERSBURG — Dozens of homeless people gathered on the steps of City Hall on Friday. They held cardboard signs and stood in line for chicken noodle soup.

They shouted.

"What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!"

Refuge Ministries of St. Petersburg and other homeless advocates rallied the group because of what they deemed harassment of the homeless at Mirror Lake Park on Wednesday. They say city workers forced the homeless to stand and prove they didn't own more than they could carry. In an e-mail, advocates compared it to fascism.

Parks employees did go there that day. They told a group of people to pack up their tent, said parks director Cliff Footlick. A duffel bag was left over, he said.

"We looked around and no one claimed it, so we picked it up," he said.

The bag's owner had left his heart medication inside and returned to find it missing.

"We got the call at noon and got the duffel bag to him in 15 minutes," said Footlick. "This is something that goes on pretty regularly. It didn't seem unusual to us, except for the medicine."

In 2008, the city passed ordinances, that, among other things, limit where and when homeless people can sleep and how many belongings they can have on them — only as much as they can carry.

Police officers issue citations with a 36-hour window for people to remove things. If they don't, police take and store items in trailers where people have 30 days to retrieve them.

The homeless say they are tired of it. They feel unfairly singled out.

"Down here, this is a joke," said Doug Tucker, 56, homeless in St. Petersburg since 2002. Before that, he lived in Ohio, where he said street living is easier. "This is a dictatorship."

Daniel Carnegie, a 50-year-old former plumber, sleeps on the street and takes 10 pills a day for his heart, he said.

"I've never seen a place where we were not trespassing," he said. "I want to get on my feet and get out of St. Pete."

In May, homeless people and advocates sued the city, saying the ordinances are unconstitutional because they amount to cruel and unusual punishment, allow unreasonable searches and violate free speech.

"The laws themselves are skewed discriminatingly toward the homeless," said advocate Eric Rubin.

Two well-dressed people drinking a bottle of wine in a park would not be arrested, and a guest standing outside the Hilton with piles of luggage would not be in trouble, Rubin contends.

The rules hinder homeless people from getting on their feet, he said. And, he added, they can't always spend precious cell phone minutes to track down their belongings through the parks department, which stores confiscated items at a different location than police.

"If you get a job and you go into day labor, where are you going to put your stuff? Your kids pictures, your ID, everything else is thrown away."

It's all about managing the situation, said Rhonda Abbott, the city's social services planning manager. It's about helping the homeless while remembering the whole community.

"We have people who live here. Mirror Lake happens to be their front yard. Williams Park happens to be their back yard."

Everyone has a right to be heard, but protests like the one Friday miss the point, she said.

"It discourages me. The contention here is damaging. This is a community issue. This isn't going to solve it. We can't all of a sudden say, 'Here's a bunch of housing that's available to you.' We're working on it. It's not helpful when something like this goes on."

Outside in the rain, Raymond Young ate soup. He's 69, disabled and homeless. He carries around a bag of clothes and an antique ceramic clown. It belonged to his mother who died 13 years ago.

"It's all I have left," he said.

He's never let anyone take it.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Homeless advocates accuse St. Petersburg of harassment 06/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 9:36am]
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