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For some, a roof just means rules

On the day Ronald Miller was released from jail, he put on his old, unwashed clothes and caught a bus to Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg.

Miller, 59, was a free man. For police, firefighters and business owners, that meant trouble.

A disabled alcoholic, Miller is taken to the hospital so often that firefighters know his Social Security number by heart. He was jailed 10 times last year, for offenses ranging from panhandling to public urination.

Miller represents the most visible and problematic segment of the Tampa Bay area's growing homeless population: those who prefer the streets to shelters.

"I don't consider myself homeless," Miller said. "I consider myself house-less."

While homeless advocates prefer to highlight families and children, city leaders hoping to solve the problem often aim their efforts at people like Miller.

But how do you help those who don't want it?

Life on the streets can be confusing and contradictory, without a clear beginning, with no end in sight.

Miller has children — he won't say how many —and an estranged wife who may or may not have moved to Texas. He has a sister with whom he stays sometimes and other siblings he would rather not bother.

"They've all got kids, so I don't want to intrude," he said.

Though Miller shares little about what drove him to the streets, his criminal record tells a dark story. He spent a year and a half in prison over a 1982 child sex offense. (Miller claims he never touched a child and thought the conviction would be expunged.) He has been arrested 51 times since then, mostly for petty crimes such as public drunkenness.

He says he worked construction around the Tampa Bay area before moving to a nudist resort in Pasco County to do landscape maintenance. He moved back to St. Petersburg in 2001. He says he helped care for his mother off and on until she died in November 2008.

Miller has a pacemaker and bad legs. His alcoholism, which often lands him in hospital emergency rooms, is infamous among police and paramedics.

On the day of his latest release from jail, in November, he mostly stayed sober, strolling around Williams Park with "Bud," "Smitty" and other street people.

"Safety in numbers," Miller told a reporter who accompanied him that day. He says he gets $676 a month in disability, which makes him a frequent robbery target.

He pointed out his favorite sleeping spots and where he can buy the cheapest beer. He offered tips on how to avoid two police officers in a dark-blue unmarked car. "Batman and Robin," Miller and his friends call them.

One of Miller's homeless friends, David Russell, 33, said St. Petersburg is a nice place for street people: There's always plenty of food and the weather is beautiful.

But it's not easy. Police arrest them for drinking in public, or defecating in alleys or fighting other homeless people. They get robbed, harassed, scorned.

Still, the shelters are worse, Russell and Miller say. "That's like being in a concentration camp or jail," Miller said. "Too many rules."

• • •

The homeless have been around the Tampa Bay area much longer than the term.

The Evening Independent in 1930 reported that representatives of Florida cities met in Tampa to study the growing "hiker problem." It also documented a 1938 police initiative to rid St. Petersburg of "out-of-town persons found loafing about the city without any visible means of support."

That Depression-era trend never really waned. Neither has public animosity toward tramps, bums, hobos — or the homeless as they have been called for decades.

Last year, volunteers counted 9,566 homeless people, including children, in Hillsborough County and 6,235 in Pinellas, up from previous years. Advocates in both counties say single parents, the new homeless, the elderly and children constitute the majority.

They are often not as visible as the roughly 20 percent who are alcoholic or mentally ill, living on the street and panhandling. Some are ex-convicts, which makes getting a job difficult, or sex offenders like Ronald Miller, which limits where they can live.

Presidents, mayors and community activists across the country have proposed myriad solutions with mixed results.

Pinellas is four years into a 10-year-plan to end chronic homelessness and touts Pinellas Hope as a promising solution. The shelter says about half of participants move into permanent homes. Some challenge that, saying more followup is needed.

In Hillsborough this year, law enforcement plans to emphasize how to best handle the mentally ill, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

With so many mentally ill street people, that aspect is key, said Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County CEO Rayme Nuckles.

So is backing from city leaders, he says.

The homeless problem has been a thorny one for Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was criticized when police began arresting people feeding the homeless in city parks. During Super Bowl week last year, critics said police were jailing everyone sleeping on the streets. The police and Iorio denied it.

Iorio declined to comment for this report.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was dogged by similar criticism before leaving office earlier this month. In 2007, police slashed tents used by the homeless, sparking national headlines. Afterward, Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon called the raids a mistake. That led to the creation of Pinellas Hope.

Bill Foster, Baker's successor, took office this month and said solving the homeless problem — and how it affects downtown businesses, residents and visitors — is a top goal.

"I am all about care and compassion for those who want help," Foster said. "But for the small segment who reject help and choose this as a lifestyle, my goal is to assist them away from St. Petersburg."

Miller has heard grumbling on the streets about Foster, but he's not fazed.

"Politicians," Miller scoffed. "They're all the same."

• • •

Josh Beckwith doesn't want to become Ronald Miller.

The Clearwater High graduate looks older than his 24 years. He had a steady job refinishing kitchens, but the recession — and his heavy drinking — led him to the streets.

Beckwith doesn't want to stay with his mother and her boyfriend in Clearwater, and his grandmother has no room. He crashed with friends, but the landlord kicked him out. So he went to Turning Point, a substance abuse shelter.

He had to leave after 30 days and felt fortunate to be accepted into Pinellas Hope.

"I'm just looking at it like I'm going camping," Beckwith said as he headed recently to the so-called tent city. "People keep saying if I take care of this now, I'll be good for the future."

• • •

Ronald Miller disappeared from the streets during the holidays. He reappeared last week, saying he had been staying on and off with his sister and got to see three of his kids.

Miller's sister talks of moving out of state, but he doesn't think he'll go.

He made $200 panhandling during the holidays, he said. During the recent cold snap, he stayed in shelters a couple of nights after Foster used a city ordinance to order all homeless off the streets for their safety.

Police Officer Richard Linkiewicz has gotten to know Miller and likes him. He won't give up on him, he says. Like a lot of police officers, Linkiewicz once regarded the homeless with disdain.

"I saw the same thing everyone else saw, the guys holding the signs," he said. "I thought they didn't want help." Now he works on a special homeless outreach squad and has changed his outlook "180 degrees.''

Linkiewicz likened Miller to a 55-year-old "raging alcoholic'' he knows. The man went to a shelter and stayed off the streets for six months, only to return to the streets again. Sometimes he finds work and police don't see him for months.

"Is that a success or a failure?" Linkiewicz said. "To me, that's a success. If we weren't here, they'd be on the street 365 days a year."

So Linkiewicz keeps approaching people like Ronald Miller with pamphlets and cards, offering help.

"You go to them 20, 30 times and say over and over, 'When you're ready for help, call me,' " he said.

Linkiewicz and other outreach officers get used to the reaction from the homeless they encounter: the eye-rolling, the arguments, the excuses. But then, out of the blue, something unexpected happens.

They call and ask for help.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.

For some, a roof just means rules 01/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 8:28pm]
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