ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster took a strict stance on city homeless rules in his first week in office, temporarily banishing homeless people from the steps of City Hall and other downtown public buildings until temperatures climb.
Police officers roamed downtown directing the homeless toward 10 cold weather shelters throughout Pinellas County and enforcing a rarely used city ordinance that prohibits anyone from sleeping outdoors if there are shelter beds available. A police car was stationed outside City Hall until at least 10 p.m. Tuesday to deter violators.
Foster said the homeless will be allowed to return once the cold shelters close because there will not be sufficient beds available to enforce the ordinance.
"It's been too cold. I'm more concerned about their welfare than anything," Foster said in explaining the sweep. "When there is no longer a detriment to their personal safety, and until I come up with a permanent solution to meet not only their needs, but the needs of the business community, then things will go back … to the way they were."
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he told his staff not to arrest anyone unless someone's life was in danger.
"Our intent is to get them to voluntarily comply," he said.
Many city shelters were full Tuesday night, and some homeless were directed to a bus stop in Williams Park, where they were then transported to shelters throughout Pinellas, said Mary Burrell, a county spokeswoman.
But some advocates for the homeless said the homeless should be allowed to remain outside City Hall if they choose.
"Unfortunately, it's a harbinger of what we have to face with Foster," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, an organizer for the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign. "As bad as (former Mayor Rick) Baker was, I think Foster is going to make Baker look like a picnic."
Cristina Silva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846.