Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg experiencing new wave of homeless

ST. PETERSBURG — For the past month, Dane Vincent hasn't been able to walk downtown without being pestered for money by homeless people.

"It's crazy," said Vincent, who comes downtown about four times a week. "It's kind of sad. You just see them laying there and wonder if they're sleeping or dead."

Williams Park once again seems to be the epicenter. Suitcases, backpacks and beggars have flooded the park in the last month.

The uptick is noticeable to downtown merchants, visitors and workers. The surge has left some wondering whether the city has loosened its policy of banning people from sleeping on public sidewalks or panhandling.

The answer from Mayor Bill Foster: a resounding no.

With cold temperatures invading northern states, it's not only retirees who seek refuge in the Florida sunshine.

"This is the time of the year when the snowbirds come," Foster said. "This is not unexpected."

Homeless people frequently buy beer across from Williams Park at Get It and Go Food Mart on Fourth Street N.

"I'm not going to lie, it's good business," said manager Haitam Filali. "The only problem I have is when they ask customers for money."

Rusty Spurgeon, 29, is among the new faces on the streets.

He had hoped to escape Cleveland's brutal winter by staying with his father in a Clearwater apartment. He traveled to Florida on a Greyhound bus in August.

Weeks later, the plan exploded when his father injured another motorist in a drunken driving crash. With his father in jail and behind on rent, the apartment manager evicted Spurgeon.

For the last five weeks, he's been staying at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in St. Petersburg, where he eats two meals a day. He sits in parks to pass time during the day. This is his first time on the streets. He yearns for a bus ticket back to Cleveland.

"This heat is killing me," said Spurgeon, who battles bipolar disorder. "I am completely broke. I don't have any friends. "

Typically, St. Vincent's food center provides fewer meals in late summer until the fall migration brings more snowbirds. Officials there say the uptick occurred sooner this year.

The shelter has been full almost every night and the agency is feeding 800 people a day, said Michael Raposa, executive director.

The downtown 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, the city started enforcing an ordinance that bans sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks. Police take violators to jail or to Pinellas Safe Harbor, a shelter the city and county opened 22 months ago off 49th Street in mid-Pinellas.

The masses no longer gather in front of City Hall to sleep, and complaints about panhandlers had dropped off.

Still, the bans might not be enough.

Transients typically beg for money in front Gilbert Jewelers at Fourth Street N and First Avenue N. Owner Jerry Gilbert fears the people deter elderly customers from coming.

"This is one of the worst corners in town," Gilbert said. "It used to be the best in the city."

The city, Foster said, is working on the problem. The recent wave of newcomers don't know about the bans, he said. When he sees homeless people, Foster said he'll often pull over to educate them or find out if they need help.

City officials met last week to discuss the uptick. Foster said he reiterated that homeless people need to be treated properly.

"You treat them all with courtesy and respect," Foster said. "If they need help, you take them to Safe Harbor or St. Vincent. If you let your guard down, (the problem) can creep back in."

But some people will refuse help until cooler temperatures hit the Tampa Bay region.

Many folks refuse to go to Safe Harbor when arrested for minor crimes and opt to be booked at jail, said police spokesman Mike Puetz. After being released quickly, they return. "When the weather gets cooler, many will take the Safe Harbor option so they have a place to stay indoors," Puetz said.

About 400 people sleep each night at Safe Harbor, the county's largest homeless emergency shelter.

Rhonda Abbott, who coordinates homeless services for the city, said an improving economy hasn't provided much help: "There is still much need, with too little resources."

Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Comments
Italian Butterfingers? Nestle selling candy business for $2.9B

Italian Butterfingers? Nestle selling candy business for $2.9B

Associated PressNEW YORK — Swiss food and drink giant Nestle is selling its U.S. candy business to Italy’s Ferrero for about $2.9 billion in cash. Ferrero will take over iconic chocolate brands Butterfinger and Crunch bars, as well as the sugary Nerd...
Updated: 1 hour ago
In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

Separate accreditation has long been a point of pride and a stamp of independence for the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee branches of the University of South Florida.Graduates of those schools frame diplomas bearing the name of their own universi...
Updated: 1 hour ago

St. Pete officer suspended for month after pushing concert guard

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer was suspended for a month after he pushed a security guard at a summer concert in Tampa, according to St. Petersburg police.It could have been worse: Chief Tony Holloway determined Officer Curtis Wright could have be...
Updated: 1 hour ago
School board member is ‘dumbfounded’ by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

School board member is ‘dumbfounded’ by Times report on Hillsborough substitute teachers

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District should reconsider how it hires substitute teachers, and that conversation should happen publicly, School Board member Lynn Gray said Tuesday.Responding to a Tampa Bay Times article published Sunday , G...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Video captures basketball game between kids, St. Petersburg officers

ST. PETERSBURG — Teamwork wins games, they say. And basketball can bridge gaps.That’s what makes the Facebook video of three St. Petersburg police officers playing a game of pickup in the street against three kids so compelling. The officers, who wer...
Updated: 1 hour ago
23 seek vacant PSC post

23 seek vacant PSC post

There is another Mariano seeking a job in Tallahassee.Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano, the father of state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, is seeking an appointment to the Florida Public Service Commission, the powerful board regulating Florida ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Tampa judge denies ‘stand your ground’ claim in Lyfe Coleman murder case

Tampa judge denies ‘stand your ground’ claim in Lyfe Coleman murder case

TAMPA — A judge has declined to grant immunity to Reginald Bowman, the man who admitted last month that he fatally shot 18-year-old Lyfe Coleman and invoked the state’s "stand your ground" law to argue it was self-defense.At a brief hearing Tuesday, ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
St. Petersburg’s apartment boom is spreading west

St. Petersburg’s apartment boom is spreading west

ST. PETERSBURG — Still more apartments are coming to St. Petersburg, this time to the Edge and Grand Central Districts just west of downtown. The new projects, all by out-of-state developers and more moderately priced than those downtown, will...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Hillsborough County firefighter gets the ax after investigators find ties to motorcycle gang

Hillsborough County firefighter gets the ax after investigators find ties to motorcycle gang

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials fired a Fire Rescue medic Tuesday after an internal investigation concluded he had "unwavering loyalty" to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club — the state’s dominant biker gang. Clinton Neal Walker, 33, of Bradenton, is ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Florida raises insurance regulation grade from C to B

Florida raises insurance regulation grade from C to B

When it comes to regulating insurance, Florida is slowly improving. The Sunshine State raised its grade from a C in 2016 to a B in 2017 on the "R Street 2017 Insurance Regulation Report Card." It ranked No. 15 among all states.The annual report, writ...
Updated: 2 hours ago