ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster vowed Monday to create a permanent shelter that will provide enough beds for the city's homeless, which would allow police to remove people sleeping on the streets.
If the city creates enough bed space to accommodate its homeless population, the mayor said, then it can start enforcing a rarely used ordinance that prohibits anyone from sleeping outside if beds are available inside a shelter.
Under this scenario, police could rouse people sleeping on the street and take them to a shelter. Those who didn't comply could be cited or arrested.
Foster's plan is the latest move by the city to address its homeless situation. While homeless advocates have screamed that the city is too tough on the destitute, business leaders say city leaders need to do more about brazen panhandlers and people who bed down on city sidewalks at night.
"I am working on creating shelter space availability so there will be no reason for a person to sleep in a public right of way," Foster said. "If I can create sufficient shelter space then they will not have that option."
The rarely used ordinance survived a recent federal challenge and was last enforced when cold shelters were opened during the winter, making more beds available.
The mayor on Monday was not yet ready to offer specific details for how he would make his proposal a reality: no price, no location, no time line, and no ideas how to pay for it.
All he would say is that it won't be as big a project as Pinellas Hope, which offers everything from social services to permanent lodging to temporary tents in Pinellas Park.
But the mayor was very specific in how he intends to eliminate the homeless encampment outside St. Vincent de Paul's food center at 401 15th St. N.
Foster said the city will add physical improvements to the sidewalk outside St. Vincent's. New lighting, raised medians and sidewalk planters are just some of the additions that will be built this summer to make it harder to congregate and sleep there.
"It's aimed at beautifying an otherwise blighted corridor," Foster said. "15th Street is a mess and I'm tired of the mess."
Why are so many homeless people sleeping on the street outside a homeless shelter? Not everyone who lives on the streets wants to live by St. Vincent's rules. Thus they eat meals inside the shelter and then sleep on the sidewalk outside it.
These changes represent Foster's most concrete action on the homeless issue since he took office in January — or at least since he ordered police to move the homeless into shelters during the winter cold snaps.
The Rev. Bruce Wright, an organizer for the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign, was a vocal critic of the mayor back then. He was even more strident Monday, saying Foster was planning a "scorched earth" campaign against the city's homeless.
"The beautification is just window dressing, an excuse," Wright said. "They're going to continue to enact policies that are cruel and criminal to the homeless."
Wright also accused St. Vincent de Paul of having police officers push the homeless — including the elderly and disabled — and their belongings out of its overpass-covered parking lot and into the rain.
"There's plenty of room for everyone under the overpass but every time it rains the police drive them out into the open," Wright said, "and it's with the support of St. Vincent's."
St. Vincent's executive director, Patricia Waltrich, said they've had to call the police more often because of a rise in illegal and dangerous behavior in its parking lot adjacent to the sidewalk. No one is allowed to camp out in the shelter's private parking lot.
"St. Vincent de Paul is enforcing its 'no trespassing' policy on our parking lot under the overpass because of the ongoing abuse of our policies, as well as city ordinances, that ban public urination and other unacceptable, if not illegal, behaviors," Waltrich said in an e-mail. But people are still allowed to gather on the sidewalk, Waltrich noted, which is protected by the overpass.
The city has long struggled with the homeless issue. In 2007 the city made national headlines when officers slashed homeless tents. Last month the City Council banned street solicitation to try to get panhandlers out of the city's intersections.
Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition of the Homeless, said she supports Foster's plan if he can come up with the beds — and if the new shelter doesn't lead to an increase in homeless arrests.
The challenge, she said, is getting the beds. The city has nearly 1,000 homeless people but just 300 beds — and the problem is getting worse with the woeful economy.
"It's very difficult to have sufficient beds because more and more are becoming homeless," she said.