ST. PETERSBURG — More than 150 people gathered outside City Hall on Friday evening to protest the economic conditions that have left so many homeless and local leaders' plans for dealing with them.
Activists, the homeless and local high school students took part in the protest. They played music on the steps of City Hall, bore signs like "homelessness is not a crime," and "stop the war on the poor," and then lined up for a hot meal of ham, turkey and rice.
"I just wish the city would get off its duff and work for the people of this city," said William "Grandpa" Shumate, 62, who spent five years living outside City Hall and once sued the city.
Cheri Honkala, a Philadelphia activist with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, helped organize the protest because she believes recent political developments will hurt the area's homeless population.
Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats plans to open a homeless shelter in an empty jail annex in January to relieve the overcrowded jail. He hopes that Pinellas Safe Harbor's 250 beds will give local law enforcement another option besides arresting homeless violators.
"I think it's absolutely appalling," said Honkala, 47. "To me it conjured up images of internment camps and places where you want people to disappear."
Pinellas' top elected officials are already at odds over the plan.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said the shelter will allow the city to finally enforce ordinances against sleeping in public. That's because federal judges have ruled that people cannot be arrested for sleeping in public if there isn't enough room for them in shelters.
But the sheriff stressed that his shelter is not the solution to St. Petersburg's homeless problem.
Meanwhile Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger has vowed to bill the city if his office has to defend anyone cited by St. Petersburg police for sleeping on the sidewalk.