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St. Petersburg tries to deal with homeless who prefer street to shelter

Lesley Williams, 64, left, thanks St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz, for help purchasing a bus ticket to reach his family in Ohio. “Anyone can fall into being homeless,” he said. 

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Lesley Williams, 64, left, thanks St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz, for help purchasing a bus ticket to reach his family in Ohio. “Anyone can fall into being homeless,” he said. 

ST. PETERSBURG — He has been here 687 days, in the same spot overlooking the same serene view of Mirror Lake. He's surrounded by a piles of stuffed plastic bags, left by other street people who bring him food for watching over their stuff.

His friends, who know him only as Joe, wonder if he's depressed. When a reporter approached him on a rainy afternoon, he refused to speak, holding an umbrella in front of him like a shield.

"He's a really nice guy," said Joey Phillips, who was homeless for almost a year before recently getting a job and an apartment. "He just wants to be left alone."

But to many people living and working downtown, people like Joe are a blight. Mayor Bill Foster wants them to move along, and he has an ambitious plan.

A 500-bed facility near the Pinellas County Jail is slated to open as early as Jan. 1. Police can legally ban all those who sleep on public sidewalks after dark if shelter beds are available. That means no more sleeping in front of City Hall, where as many as 100 people snooze each night. No more sleeping in front of churches, businesses or on sidewalks bordering parks and lakes.

That will make life harder for people like Joe who choose sidewalks over shelters. Experts say up to 20 percent of homeless people fit into this category, and many are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Of the 150 or so people who sleep in downtown St. Petersburg, most are part of that 20 percent.

Foster calls them "the unplaceables."

• • •

St. Petersburg police Officer Rich Linkiewicz pulled his unmarked cruiser onto the sidewalk and drove straight through Williams Park. It was shortly after daybreak as exhausted-looking men on benches looked up in confusion. An elderly woman smiled a toothless grin and waved.

Officer Rich, as he is known on the street, stopped near the park fountain with his engine running, his windows rolled down. People moved slowly toward his car to tell him their troubles. One woman was on the verge of tears, and he offered to take her to Turning Point, a nearby rehab shelter.

But it was the shy or reclusive he seemed most interested in reaching. "Who wants to go to a shelter?" he asked a group of people huddled around a park bench.

"Nobody," a white-haired woman snapped back.

"You don't want to go …" he started to say.

"Noooooo," she said. "No. I got all my buddies and friends out here." She said she was waiting for a disability check and then she'd be okay.

"If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone was getting off the street when they got their check in two weeks, I'd be rich," Linkiewicz likes to say.

Linkiewicz, 44, jokes with the homeless. He plays along with their stories, their hard-luck excuses, their fantasies about how much their lives are going to change once they get that $642 Social Security check.

Linkiewicz, who has been a homeless outreach officer for the past five years of his 20-year career, is different from the uniformed officers who patrol downtown, looking for homeless people committing crimes. As one of only three such officers in Pinellas County, his main job is to persuade homeless people to go to shelters. If they don't want to go, he doesn't push. But he'll be back.

Every so often, someone will climb in his back seat in hopes of a bed, meals and better future. And every so often, he'll see him or her back on the street. And he'll try again.

Foster speaks of a plan that sounds aggressive and sweeping.

With the new facility, a judge has the option of sending people arrested for petty crimes such as public urination to the shelter instead of jail. Maybe they could then get some help to get off the streets for good.

The plan also would apply to those who generally follow the rules but sleep in rights of way because they have nowhere else to go.

"They can choose to stay there, but they can't sleep," Foster said. "Their choice is: Come with us and we'll transport your stuff. Or go to jail."

There's a catch. Legally, the city cannot move homeless people too far from their "home,'' said City Attorney John Wolfe. Anyone who wants to return downtown will get a free ride back.

Officer Rich sees people back in Williams Park after their 12th or 13th stay at a shelter. Or after he gives someone a one-way bus ticket to Ohio or New York. How many of those unplaceables will choose the shelter?

• • •

Linkiewicz pulled up in a parking lot near Mirror Lake and looked at the hunched figure under the tree, reading a library book and taking notes. He had never noticed this guy before.

He approached carefully, then spoke out in his usual jovial tone, "Hey, man, what's your name?"

The bearded man, who looked to be in his 30s or 40s, wearing layers of shirts and sweat shirts and surrounded by bags and empty tin cans, looked at Linkiewicz timidly. "Joe," he said.

Linkiewicz asked questions. Joe answered in snippets. Joe had been living on an inheritance from his father but it ran out. He's been on the streets since Feb. 3, 2009, he said, and he has sisters, but prefers to stay here and study. He'd been growing intellectually, and he felt it was a good experience.

Linkiewicz lectured him about his diet and taking care of himself. He told him there were shelter options that didn't involve religion, which a lot of homeless people don't like.

Joe said he'd think about it.

Officer Rich walked away and got back in his unmarked cruiser, making a mental note to check back on Joe.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

St. Petersburg tries to deal with homeless who prefer street to shelter 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 9:38pm]
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