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Clearwater officials crack down on public amenities used by homeless

CLEARWATER — The crackdown has begun on public "enablers" as the city closes restrooms and cuts power in public parks frequented by the homeless.

Crews on Monday welded the restrooms shut at Crest Lake Park after hearing reports that the homeless used them at night for drug use, sleeping and prostitution.

In Station Square Park, the downtown courtyard next to the $50 million Station Square condo tower, officials asked for removal of a hose that the homeless were using for water.

And power outlets at Coachman Park and Station Square Park have been turned off because homeless people were using them to charge cellphones.

In an email last month, City Manager Bill Horne called cutting electricity in public spaces a priority. Station Square Park, he wrote, was "a real attraction for our street homeless."

Slashing urban amenities is the city's latest step in making it tougher to live on the street. The city's homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, said street survival guides and "renegade" food giveaways only served to discourage the homeless from seeking real help.

The city's new homeless initiative pushes for more engagement in services such as job training at facilities such as Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's homeless shelter next to the jail.

Some of the city's tough-love policies have already met with resistance. Earlier this year, Horne and Marbut called for discouraging donations to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. That idea was shelved after public backlash.

Last month city employees took pictures of three men they saw charging cellphones at Station Square Park. Officials are also keeping a spreadsheet tracking homeless sightings and residents' complaints.

One sighting mentions homeless people living in a boarded-up funeral home after sneaking in through air-conditioning vents. Another mentions "a young couple watching movies at the door of" the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, the shelter and day center that closed last year after the city ended its funding.

Since October, the city has spent $175,000 on social services for the poor and the homeless, less than half of what the city spent the previous year, city records show.

Four years ago, the city spent nearly five times that amount — more than $800,000, including half a million dollars to the Homeless Emergency Project.

Shannon O'Leary-Beck, who has visited Crest Lake Park for 16 years, said she worries that the six locked restrooms next to a playground will prompt some people to relieve themselves elsewhere in the park.

She also wondered what the locked restrooms will mean for park events, including a benefit this month for Melissa Dohme, the young woman police say was brutally attacked by an ex-boyfriend outside her nearby home.

"There really isn't a homeless problem at that park. It's the same guys every day. We know a lot of them by name," O'Leary-Beck said. "The whole thing is just mind-boggling. … This is not going to solve the problem."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater officials crack down on public amenities used by homeless 06/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 9:07pm]
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