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St. Petersburg homeless outreach officer faces tough choice

Officer Rich Linkiewicz talks with the homeless in St. Petersburg recently. “Nobody is going to go from my house to the street.”

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Officer Rich Linkiewicz talks with the homeless in St. Petersburg recently. “Nobody is going to go from my house to the street.”

ST. PETERSBURG — For five years, St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz has embodied the city's efforts to help the homeless.

When the tent city at Pinellas Hope has openings, he brings in newcomers. If someone sleeping beneath the interstate want to move to a drying-out shelter, he finds an available bed. If somebody's mother in Detroit offers the old room back, Linkiewicz can provide bus fare.

He is "Officer Rich" to St. Petersburg's downtrodden, armed with a cell phone that rings every five minutes and a take-charge attitude that values solutions over small talk.

After hours, Linkiewicz, 46, has played a lesser-known role. For two years, he rented out bedrooms in adjacent Meadowlawn homes to people with small incomes and nowhere to go.

"For what I pay, it's a great place. My goodness, I can sleep at night," renter Mark Ducharme, 51, said recently. Because Linkiewicz, himself, lives in one of the two houses, "everyone feels safe here," Ducharme said. "I lucked out."

Police officials were less comfortable recently, when they learned the details. Linkiewicz had not violated any policy, said police Chief Chuck Harmon, "but if there is a perception he is making money off the backs people he working with, then that would be a problem."

And so, Linkiewicz and the people he has personally sheltered are having to part ways.

• • •

Richard Linkiewicz was 8 when his family moved to Florida from Massachusetts. He went to Northeast High, St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida before joining the police force 22 years ago.

His current job as St. Petersburg's only "homeless outreach officer" was created five years ago after police roused downtown squatters, slashed their tents and received withering national criticism as a city without a heart.

Linkiewicz teams with social worker Ryne Laxton from Operation PAR, doling out pamphlets, cards with their phone number and a standing offer to help whenever people decide to get off the street.

"He listens to everybody," Laxton said. "The way homeless people treat him with friendly respect is amazing. When I came, I got that same friendly respect just because I was in his car. That took years to build that reputation."

Linkiewicz's role as landlord began about two years ago. A divorce had left him with the marital home in a modest part of Meadowlawn, a recently purchased rental unit next door and considerable debt.

The housing market's plummet didn't help.

Linkiewicz began renting bedrooms to people wanting to move from Pinellas Hope into more permanent, enclosed housing with heat and air conditioning.

Many were disabled people or veterans with small monthly checks, or people who could qualify for $450 monthly housing vouchers from the county or city, so $450 became the rent.

At that price, options are limited, said Sheila Lopez, chief executive of Catholic Charities and founding director of Pinellas Hope.

Unlike Linkiewicz, most landlords require first and last month's rent in advance. Renters also usually pay utilities.

"When you find someone who will give proper housing — anybody, the cat, the dog or the pool man — you jump at it," Lopez said. "As long as it is decent, safe and sanitary."

Ducharme once rented a room in Tampa for $125 a week — three to a room. With Linkiewicz, he got his own room, half-bath, cable TV and a shelf in the community refrigerator.

Andy Powell, 65, said he tried other places but public housing apartments rejected him because he had a prison record.

"To find a place as nice as this one, I couldn't afford it."

Linkiewicz said the houses — with seven bedrooms between them — often stayed full, including him in one bedroom and his adult son, who works and goes to school, in another.

Because renters came from Pinellas Hope, he had a pretty good idea who would get along and who wouldn't.

"There are just a few rules," he said. "No falling down drunk. No throwing up on the front lawn. Like you would be at your mother's house. Don't be a fool."

Only one renter bombed out — dancing outside drunk in his underwear on his third day, Linkiewicz said. "I gave him his money back and took him to a hotel."

Rent payments do not quite cover his mortgages, utilities, taxes and insurance, he said. But opening his houses, plus working plenty of overtime, has helped him dig out of debt.

"I told my son, 'I've got my health. I've got a great job. Once I get out of this jumble, I'll buy a house just for us. But this is how it is for us right now. We have a roof over our heads, power, water and food.' "

• • •

When the St. Petersburg Times asked to review Linkiewicz's personnel file for this story, the police chief learned about Linkiewicz's renters and gave him a choice: Take a different job within the department or stop renting rooms to people from Pinellas Hope.

"At the end of the day, he should not be renting to people he is coming into contact with as result of his job," Harmon said. "I don't want the department, or him, to be in a position where people could view that as a conflict of interest."

Linkiewicz also had to find new accommodations for current renters, Harmon said.

As it turned out, Pinellas Hope was opening an 80-unit apartment complex that week, adjacent to the tents. They also rent for $450 a month.

"I'm going to give them Sheila's phone number. They all know Sheila," Linkiewicz said, referring to Pinellas Hope's director Sheila Lopez. "Nobody is going to go from my house to the street."

St. Petersburg homeless outreach officer faces tough choice 02/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 10:07pm]
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