Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

St. Petersburg: Are homeless people again flocking to downtown?

From left, Morgan Hill, 45, Errin Shelton, 37, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, talk with reporters in Williams Park last week in downtown St. Petersburg.


From left, Morgan Hill, 45, Errin Shelton, 37, Troy “Happy” Gilmore, 35, and Timothy Barker, 45, talk with reporters in Williams Park last week in downtown St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been 18 months since the city ousted the hundreds of homeless people that slept around City Hall and elsewhere downtown.

But a recent uptick in homeless people — from the Grand Central district to the downtown waterfront — has raised concerns that the problem may be returning.

Even the lauded consultant, who helped devise the city's homeless strategy, said he believes the city needs to do more outreach work on the streets.

"You have to keep up with the maintenance," said Robert Marbut, hired by the city to help with homeless issues from October 2010 through November 2011. "That worries me."

Anecdotal reports of more homeless people downtown conflict with a recent homeless count by the city that showed as few as 27 people downtown at night and 179 during the day.

"I don't think they're accurate," council member Jeff Danner said of the counts. "I see more people than that. I'm getting a lot of complaints."

Danner and council member Leslie Curran said the city's efforts have slipped since Marbut's contract expired and Rhonda Abbott, a city manager who battled homeless and veteran issues for six years, left in November.

"They both went above and beyond their jobs to talk to people," Danner said.

Curran agreed, saying: "We've taken a step back. We need someone on the streets."

Not so fast, said Mayor Bill Foster.

He attributes the uptick to a seasonal migration and a harsh winter in northeastern states. He also believes others flooded the Sunshine City after Hurricane Sandy in October.

"It's the palm tree effect," he said.

The biggest issue, he said, is the chronic homeless who don't want to be helped.

The city has hired someone to replace Abbott, he said.

Cliff Smith, Pinellas County's assistant director of health and human services, will start June 1 after he has exhausted his remaining vacation time at the county, Foster said.

Smith will be paid $68,500 per year, the same salary Abbott received.

Foster said he believes the city's homeless counts were accurate.

The homeless population had shrunk since the city tightened its rules on panhandling and instituted a general ban on street solicitation in 2010.

In July 2011, St. Petersburg started enforcing an ordinance that bans sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks. Police take violators to jail or to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's shelter off 49th Street in mid-Pinellas.

Still, the many homeless people last weekend in Williams and Unity parks surprised Marbut, who still consults with the city of Clearwater and took a drive through St. Petersburg.

As for the overall effort, Marbut gave the city high marks on everything expect outreach, which he describes as 10 percent of the total work.

He and Abbott canvassed streets for six hours on most days to talk with people, Marbut said. With the gains in place, the effort shouldn't take more than a few hours a day now, he added.

The biggest trigger, he said, is when 10 or more people hang out in one place.

With Smith not starting until June, the problem will only grow, he said.

"You want to get after it now," Marbut said. "If you let it fester, you're going to have big problems."

A man who spent many years living on the streets said the city needs more social workers in the parks, not police officers shooing people away.

"The city doesn't have a good strategy," said Gregory Rolle, a St. Petersburg resident and member of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. "There aren't many solutions being offered."

Curran, who owns a art gallery on Central Avenue, said more homeless people are loitering in alleys and panhandling in the district. She believes outreach workers should ask business owners about emerging hot spots.

Curran and Danner worked to bring Marbut here from Texas. She doesn't believe the city needs to hire him permanently, but her biggest concern is that the city will have to start over if the issue grows.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said he has heard about homeless hanging near businesses by Tyrone Square Mall.

"Losing Rhonda (Abbott) was not good for the city," he said. "She did a great job."

Foster cautioned that the city has the problem under control.

"It's significantly better than it was three years ago," he said. "It's a work in progress."

Mark Puente can be reached at or (727) 893-8459.

St. Petersburg: Are homeless people again flocking to downtown? 02/24/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 24, 2013 10:39pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trigaux: How Moffitt Cancer's M2Gen startup won $75 million from Hearst


    TAMPA — A Moffitt Cancer Center spin-off that's building a massive genetic data base of individual patient cancer information just caught the attention of a deep-pocketed health care investor.

    Richard P. Malloch is the president of Hearst Business Media, which is announcing a $75 million investment in M2Gen, the for-profit cancer informatics unit spun off by Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. Malloch's job is to find innovative investments for the Hearst family fortune. A substantial amount has been invested in health care, financial and the transportation and logistics industries.
  2. A boat lays on its side off the shore of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, after the passing of Hurricane Maria. [Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte | Associated Press]
  3. 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 149, collapses buildings in Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 149 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.

    A woman is lifted on a stretcher from of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. [Rebecca Blackwell | Associated Press]
  4. FHP seeks semitrailer truck driver that left fiery wreck on I-75


    TAMPA — The Florida Highway Patrol is looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an Interstate 75 crash that left another car burning on Tuesday afternoon.

    Troopers were looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an accident scene on Interstate 75 in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon that caused a car to catch fire. [Courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol]
  5. Joe Maddon gets warm reception in return to the Trop

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The night was arranged to honor former Rays manager Joe Maddon in his first visit back to the Trop, and the standing ovation from the bipartisan crowd and scoreboard video tribute seemed proper acknowledgments of his hefty role in the Rays' success during his nine-year stint.

    Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) talks with reporters during a press conference before the start of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.