Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

St. Pete grapples with homeless influx in Uptown and Methodist Town

ST. PETERSBURG — Residents in Historic Uptown and Methodist Town have had enough of a booming homeless population around nearby St. Vincent de Paul's shelter.

They say people are urinating and defecating in the alleys. They brawl in the streets. They toss syringes, bottles and condoms on sidewalks and in flower beds.

James Keane, president of the Historic Uptown Neighborhood Association, told the City Council recently that Mayor Rick Kriseman told him he was appalled at the condition of the neighborhood.

"I live in appalled," Keane said.

Keane and leaders in Methodist Town, to the south of the shelter, blame lax management at St. Vincent. But they also say the problem intensified after city and county officials in February removed bus shelters at Williams Park. It was part of an effort to realign bus routes and make the park more accessible to downtown's growing residential population by providing Wi-Fi service and space for food trucks.

City Council member Karl Nurse thinks that may have shifted some homeless to St. Vincent de Paul's, but he blames most of the chaos on the shelter's chief executive officer, Michael Raposa.

"They don't run the shelter well," Nurse said. Raposa's attitude, he said, is "I'm doing the Lord's work. Give me money and stop complaining."

Raposa has a different take. He said the city has diverted the homeless into areas surrounding St. Vincent by shooing them away from Williams Park and downtown neighborhoods such as Round Lake, Crescent Lake and Mirror Lake. He added that city officials asked him to send St. Vincent staff to Williams Park to bring homeless people to its facility.

"Over an extended period of time, the city has gradually tightened the perimeter of homelessness across the city into one geographic area," Raposa said, referring to the area around his shelter. "We believe it was conscious."

Kriseman says no such policy exists, but that he wants everyone to work together.

"The key here is partnership," Kriseman said. "It can't be that St. Vincent's carries all the water on this — that's not going to happen. And it can't be that the city carries all the water on this."

What everyone agrees on is that there are indeed more homeless people around St. Vincent's. And police say they don't know why.

"I want to make sure we're not pushing it from one area to another," said police Chief Tony Holloway. "Hopefully, within the next month we'll be able to determine exactly where these people are coming from."

Unity Park, along Fourth Avenue N., is about 300 yards away from St. Vincent's. Recently, several dozen people lounged in the park, many clearly high. Spice was openly smoked and sold.

Timothy Barker, 48, has been homeless off and on for about 15 years. He said Unity Park always had some homeless residents, but it has become more of a gathering spot as police put pressure on Mirror Lake, Round Lake, Crescent Lake and, especially, Williams Park.

"It's safer from the cops," Barker said. But after a recent uptick in problems at Unity Park, the police are now hovering there, too. "They get us for everything."

Others at the park echo his views, but not all.

"Up here is its own crowd," said a 47-year-old man who said his first name was Nunnzio. "Williams Park has its own hustle."

That could be changing.

Police Department statistics show a 5 percent drop in calls for service in Williams Park since Jan. 1 compared to the previous year. Unity Park has seen a nearly tenfold increase during that same time frame.

Arrests in Williams Park have dropped by half. They've quadrupled in Unity Park.

Nurse blames St. Vincent for failing to control those it serves.

"It is the magnet that negatively impacts the surrounding neighborhood," Nurse said. "There is a culture created around there that is 'anything goes.' "

At a recent council meeting, Nurse cited 1,500 police calls so far this year at the shelter. Raposa said that the facility itself gets very few police responses and he can't control what happens outside of its walls, Raposa said.

"We support the neighborhoods' concerns," Raposa said. "But unless we're running a quasiprison with guards and locked gates, we can't keep them here."

But residents worry about their home values, their safety and their neighborhoods' future.

"When the police aren't here, people are in the middle of the streets," said Joey Mingione, president of the Methodist Town Neighborhood Association. "I moved here to be close to everything, but it's turned out to be somewhat of a nightmare."

Police have recently opened a temporary substation in the neighborhood, a trailer where officers can write reports and have increased patrols. Fire department officials are considering placing medical personnel at the shelter.

For now, Kriseman said, the city, St. Vincent's and residents will have to continue to experiment to find what works.

On Friday, though, the battle lines hardened. A city committee denied $23,000 in requested funding for St. Vincent's night shelter. Nurse said he didn't see any desire on Raposa's part to fix the problem.

Raposa said the only fix is to embrace a federal push to house the most needy, regardless of whether they're sober. A City Council workshop is scheduled for this week.

The City Council will have the final say on the funding cut. Raposa said, if approved, the night shelter will likely close for two nights a week.

Council chairwoman Amy Foster said she understood the neighborhoods' concerns, but warned against reducing services.

"I'm concerned we will just be dispersing the problem, not solving it," she said after the meeting.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

   
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