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Downtown St. Petersburg will see fewer homeless people soon, mayor promises

Bunking Thursday night on Fifth Street at First Avenue N, Joey Phillips says he thinks he’s safer on the street than in a shelter.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Bunking Thursday night on Fifth Street at First Avenue N, Joey Phillips says he thinks he’s safer on the street than in a shelter.

ST. PETERSBURG — The days of seeing downtown parks and sidewalks hosting makeshift homeless camps are nearly over, Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday.

In the next two weeks, the city will begin enforcing ordinances that ban sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks and the storage of personal belongings on public property.

Williams Park, City Hall, the Princess Martha senior apartments, all known for attracting the homeless, will be transformed, Foster told council members.

"You will see success," Foster said. "All eight of you have made this happen. When your constituents ask you about this in the coming weeks, take credit for it because you guys made it happen."

Violators will be given the option of going to Pinellas Safe Harbor — a shelter the county opened with the city's help in January — or jail. Located off 49th Street near the Pinellas County Jail, Safe Harbor has already become the county's largest shelter, averaging 320 to 350 people a day.

Word of the changes is getting out, said Shawn Samples, a 38-year-old unemployed waiter who spends his days at Williams Park and his nights sleeping along Fifth Street.

"I heard through word of mouth," Samples said. "And I don't want to go (to the shelter). It reminds me too much of a jail."

St. Petersburg's move could cause ripples for other Tampa Bay cities.

Last year, when the city banned street solicitation to stop homeless people from panhandling, Tampa and Hillsborough County officials reported an uptick in those begging for money and food on their streets.

For months, Foster delayed enforcing ordinances aimed at the homeless because there wasn't enough shelter space. The jail no longer had room for violators of small crimes such as trespassing. Yet he continued to catch flak from downtown businesses and residents who said he was doing little to address the surging homeless population.

Late last year, he pushed for a solution — the opening of Safe Harbor, which has room for 500. Its intent was to help remove homeless people from downtown streets, but also to allow the shift of homeless people accused of smaller crimes away from jail, where the costs are $125 more a day.

Its expansion is made possible by a recent shipment of 100 bunks the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ordered from an Alabama jail for $20 apiece. Metropolitan Ministries has agreed to provide food there, saving more than $300,000 in annual costs.

Soon, a courtyard will be open that will add even more space.

Since April 25, the city has been enforcing other ordinances aimed at the homeless population, such as prohibitions on urinating in public and open containers of alcohol.

Since then, 151 people who violated those ordinances have been taken to the shelter, where they have access to an array of services, such as showers, food and security, said St. Petersburg police Maj. DeDe Carron. In exchange, they agree to perform community service or attend mental health or addiction evaluations or rehabilitation sessions.

Of the 151, 37 have been there more than once.

If someone is sent there three times, they go to jail or their first appearance before a judge.

Some local business owners said they had noticed a decrease in the homeless population downtown recently.

Barb Morlack, who owns Kauffman's Jewlers on First Avenue N, said she has seen fewer of the homeless outside her store over the past few months.

"I assumed it was because they opened the shelter by the jail," she said. Her store has been a presence on First Avenue for 62 years.

Lexi Clavizzao, whose mother owns Vizaj Essentials, a boutique next door to Kauffman's, said groups of homeless people used to gather on the bench outside the store but disappeared once "the cops started driving by."

Even from Leigha Good's perspective, the ranks of the homeless have grown thinner in recent weeks.

A former waiter, Good, 24, has been living on St. Petersburg's streets for the last month.

She said she has seen fewer homeless people in the last couple of weeks. Based on what she has heard from her friends about Safe Harbor, she has security concerns and thinks it sounds jail-like.

"From the city's point of view, it's working," Good said. "But from our point of view, it's scary. I don't really want to go to Safe Harbor."

Times staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8037.

Downtown St. Petersburg will see fewer homeless people soon, mayor promises 06/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 12:25am]

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