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Helping the homeless is juggling act for St. Petersburg

Wendell McArthur sits in front of Mirror Lake as he finishes his free fried chicken meal Monday in St. Petersburg. McArthur,  56 and homeless for two weeks, says he eats there every day at 5 p.m.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Wendell McArthur sits in front of Mirror Lake as he finishes his free fried chicken meal Monday in St. Petersburg. McArthur, 56 and homeless for two weeks, says he eats there every day at 5 p.m.

ST. PETERSBURG — The good Samaritan wanted to pass out food to the city's homeless.

City Council member Leslie Curran asked the man where he was from. Clearwater, he said.

"My suggestion to him was to stay in Clearwater," Curran recalled.

Embattled by complaints from property owners and business leaders who are fed up with unruly vagrants, city officials want to fight the area's reputation as a haven for the homeless.

City council members have asked church groups to stop feeding transients in public parks and hope to soon pass legislation that would limit or ban feeding the homeless on public land.

They already passed a series of ordinances last year that prohibit people from sleeping during the day on sidewalks and from leaving piles of belongings on city corners.

But even as city leaders work to deter drifters from coming to St. Petersburg, they also are brainstorming new ways to make life easier for the homeless, especially downtown's nearly 200 street residents.

They doubled the size of public storage for the homeless to keep their belongings. In the works are a medical program for recovering homeless patients and an oversized soup kitchen to help area food banks.

City officials admit it's a complicated juggling act.

"You want to show compassion," said council member Bill Dudley. "But by the same token you show too much and you end up exacerbating the problem."

• • •

St. Petersburg earned a reputation as a bully after city workers slashed the tents of 20 homeless people living in a makeshift camp in 2007.

Since then, the city has helped open and expand Pinellas Hope, a private tent city in unincorporated Pinellas.

But police also have sent undercover officers downtown to arrest panhandlers.

Some residents want the city to focus its efforts on creating more shelter beds. Others want the homeless run out of town.

"It's kind of, 'You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't,' " said Rhonda Abbott, manager of the city's social services department. "You can't please everyone."

• • •

Frank Bouvard has had more than his share of confrontations with the homeless.

Bouvard, co-owner of the Lobby lounge and the Garden Restaurant on Central Avenue, said he has had to walk an elderly couple to their car because they were afraid of vagrants. He had to give an outraged family a free meal after a homeless man barged into his restaurant yelling obscenities. A group dining outside recently asked to move indoors to escape a pair of stinky street musicians.

"Customers say, 'We love coming here, but we aren't going to come back because of the homeless,'" Bouvard said. "That hurts."

Mickey Paleologos, owner of Central Cafe and Organics, said he doesn't feel sorry for the homeless.

"There are places for them to go," he said. "They choose not to."

He is fed up with people bringing the homeless food.

"Why would you want to go anywhere else when you know your food is coming?" he asked.

• • •

The homeless don't always appreciate the city's efforts.

Richie Rich, 50, has been homeless for two decades. He asks for spare change, drinks hard liquor in city parks and urinates anywhere he can.

Still, he said, the police should let him nap at Williams Park.

"They said, 'You can't sleep here during the day.' I told them, 'I work at night.' They kicked my feet and told me to move," he said.

Walter Coleman, 53, lost his job as a condominium maintenance man nine months ago and became homeless a month later. He sleeps on the sidewalk outside of City Hall and lines up at Mirror Lake every day for free fried chicken delivered by a Muslim missionary. He competes for jobs against dozens of other unemployed workers.

The city hasn't shown him any compassion, he said.

"They try to keep you under their thumb, where you have to jump through certain circles just to keep your belongings," he said.

But the city's worst crime, he said, is closing its public restrooms at night.

"People have to go to the bathroom," he said.

Helping the homeless is juggling act for St. Petersburg 02/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 9:43am]
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