ST. PETERSBURG — Every weekday, in the early morning quiet before most workers arrive, a war is waged on downtown streets.
City sanitation workers, armed with gallons of cherry-scented biodegradable deodorizer, are fighting an assault on the senses. They spray streets, alleyways and trash bins, trying to alleviate the unmistakable stench of human waste.
"It's horrible," said Tony Mauri, director of engineering for the Princess Martha Hotel. "It's been dry, and nothing is washing it away."
Homeless people have been relieving themselves downtown for years, but the dry weather is making the stench more noticeable. Others say the problem seems worse because there are more homeless people downtown.
The battle of the odor is just another example of the clash between the city and the homeless.
City Hall, where homeless people camp out every night, gets treated with Lem-O-Quat, a clear yellow disinfectant with a citrus or lemon fragrance. It's a mix of ammonium chloride that may cause irritation if inhaled or sprayed on the skin or eyes.
The city's sanitation department uses a disinfectant called WHOOF, an ethanol-based, biodegradable deodorizer that also can cause irritation if sprayed in the eyes or on the skin.
"Homeless people are everywhere, so we've sprayed (WHOOF) throughout downtown," said Ben Shirley, director of sanitation. "It's not the type of chemical that will permanently get rid of the smell. People have allergies, so it can't be something they are allergic to. We have to be careful of what we use."
It's unclear how long the city has been using these chemicals, but in January, the city expanded the use of WHOOF to include the alley between City Hall and Christ United Methodist Church on First Avenue N. Mayor Bill Foster said he ordered the spraying shortly after taking office.
"I got tired of walking to Central Avenue and having it smell like a port-a-potty," Foster said. "We had people using that church like it was a litter box."
Church members say they are grateful, but wished the alley was sprayed seven days a week instead of six.
"The city does a good job, but they don't do it on Sunday," said Richard Fraze, a trustee of Christ United. "On Sunday morning, it's really bad. It only takes three or four of them to make a mess. We try to wash it away, but it's still pretty bad."
Homeless people aren't happy with the situation, either. Some say they have been awakened from their sidewalk slumber by the splash of chemicals on their clothes or skin.
"I walked into City Hall soaking wet once to complain," said 44-year-old Joey Phillips, who was cited for public urination shortly after becoming homeless in January. "They just told me, 'Either wake up a half hour earlier or don't sleep there.' "
Phillips said undercover police officers set up "pee traps," usually on Fridays at sunrise, where they nab those who wake up and have to urinate nearby.
"Where are we supposed to go?" he said.
The bathroom facilities at Williams Park can be used until 11 p.m., and the Little St. Mary's bathrooms near the water are open until 1 a.m. Outside of that, bushes, alleys and doorways seem to be the only places to urinate.
The city isn't prepared to build new bathroom facilities for homeless people, officials say.
"I have done so much research on bathrooms," said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's Veteran, Social and Homeless Services manager. "Not only do you have to build them, but you have to man them 24/7 because of criminal activity that goes on inside them."
But city officials are well aware of the smell, she said. She longs for a day when that problem goes away, when everyone starts using toilets and she can stop talking about urine.
"One day," Abbott said, "I hope to not get so many calls about the stench downtown."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.