ST. PETERSBURG — They thought they had seen it all here, those who live beneath the highway overpass the homeless call home.
They've been pelted with rotten eggs, tomatoes, firecrackers — even phone books. Every so often a passing vehicle hurls another cruelty at those who know little else.
After midnight Wednesday, a dark-colored sedan flew by on Fifth Avenue N. Three, 2-liter bottles were tossed from the passenger window onto the street.
Most were asleep, hiding from the bitter cold under piles of blankets and sweaters and jackets. Others were still awake at the corner of 15th Street. Just more empty beer bottles, they thought.
Then the first one exploded. They were acid bombs.
"It's a terrorist act against the homeless," said Rebecca Legg-Todd, 51, a regular on the corner.
St. Petersburg detectives continued their search Thursday for whoever attacked one of the city's most well-known homeless encampments.
No one was injured, though acid was splattered onto a couple's blanket. The next night, few of the corner's residents had abandoned their usual spot.
Instead, their fear turned to anger — and defiance.
"They're cowards," said Denny DeJesus, whose blanket was hit by acid, "and we need to set an example for the cowards.
"We're not scared of you."
• • •
The attack took place at 12:40 a.m. Wednesday outside the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's food center at 401 15th St. N.
The suspect vehicle was described as a dark, boxy sedan, perhaps an old Lincoln Town Car. It was headed west on Fifth Avenue, the passenger window facing away from the homeless.
But witnesses said that's where the bottles were tossed from, thrown over the car's roof by the passenger's white-gloved hand.
Three bottles wrapped in paper bags bounced onto the pavement. The first hit a stop sign at 15th Street, then rolled to the feet of the sleeping couple.
The second landed on the other side of 15th Street. The third landed farther west.
The last one thrown was the first to go off — with a bang.
"It was loud," said DeJesus, a 39-year-old unemployed painter from Boston. "Louder than an M-80."
The second bottle erupted "like a volcano," Legg-Todd said, and left a geyser of smoke.
Then the third bottle went off, spraying acid onto one of the seven blankets DeJesus and his girlfriend were using.
Legg-Todd said she called 911. The police came to investigate and threw away two of the blankets spotted with acid.
But it was 42 degrees that night. DeJesus said they needed every layer just to stay warm.
"Believe it or not," he said, "two blankets make a big difference."
• • •
Outrage was another emotion felt a day after the attack.
"These people have absolutely nothing," said St. Vincent de Paul's executive director Patricia Waltrich. "To be living on the streets and subjected to such a despicable act is unconscionable,
"I don't understand how people can be so inhumane."
The homeless are a problem in every community. But in St. Petersburg, it is a problem that often makes headlines.
In 2007 police made national news when they slashed homeless people's tents. New Mayor Bill Foster has promised a crackdown on the homeless. That same year, two homeless men were killed in separate shootings just blocks from each other in one night. One man is serving a life sentence for the murders, another is set to go on trial Monday.
Officers have been rousting the homeless during this week's cold snap. But Foster said it's for their own good, to get them off the streets and into shelters.
Indeed, many refuse to go into the shelters. St. Vincent de Paul had room the night of the attack. But some have no place to put their stuff. Others just won't go.
"There are just those who prefer to be outside because our rules are very strict," Waltrich said. "No smoking, no drinking. You come in, sleep and that's it."
That was apparent Thursday night at the camp. The scent of marijuana wafted through the air. Open beers were everywhere. A man urinated on the sidewalk on the other side of 15th Street.
Legg-Todd needs a walker to get around. She was moving even slower Thursday, after she said others in the camp "jumped" her. It was punishment, she said, for calling 911.
"It's an occupational hazard of being homeless," she said. "If you can call this an occupation."