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Group will discuss crime, housing problems in Pinellas

Pastor Fleming Tarver sees drug-dealing and prostitution not far from his church in the North Greenwood section of Clearwater.

Across town, retiree Barbara DiCairano says her 25-year-old granddaughter lives with her because she can't afford her own apartment.

Tarver and DiCairano are two of 2,000 people coming together Monday night to ask public officials to do more about Pinellas County's high cost of housing and problems with crime, especially in Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo. Those coming are part of a network of more than 30 multiracial and multidenominational churches from around Pinellas known as Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST.

At the meeting, known as an "action," some people from areas such as North Greenwood in Clearwater, Ridgecrest in Largo and Midtown in St. Petersburg will give testimonials about crime in their neighborhoods.

Others will talk about problems finding affordable housing.

The idea is to get public officials to address their concerns.

The churches expect several Pinellas County commissioners and the Clearwater and Largo mayors — Frank Hibbard and Pat Gerard, respectively — to attend. According to organizers, several Pinellas County School Board members and Sheriff Jim Coats will also be there.

"I'm hoping that by going to this meeting with city officials, they can hear the voice of the people crying out," said Tarver, who is bringing at least 50 people from St. John's Missionary Baptist Church.

The churches lament that the police chiefs of the county's two biggest cities declined to attend.

Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein said that after he was invited he spoke with some public officials who have attended past FAST actions.

As a result, he said he determined the Largo event would not be an appropriate forum to discuss crime initiatives for his city.

The reason? The format includes public officials being asked to stand in front of the gathering. They are not allowed to hold the microphone. They are asked direct "yes-or-no" questions regarding their support for the group's positions.

The public officials Klein spoke to told him they would never go back to another FAST action because of its confrontational nature.

Klein said his anticrime initiatives include a meeting this weekend with some pastors in North Greenwood, some of whom are also members of FAST. He said they he and the pastors are working on a "faith-based" neighborhood watch program.

"I will continue to work with them to achieve any objective," Klein said. "But I don't think that their forum is going to help the Clearwater Police Department and our programs here."

St. Petersburg chief Charles Harmon said he, too, is meeting with local pastors. But he sent a letter to the FAST churches declining to attend Monday night's event.

He also cited concerns over the "yes-or-no" format and having to "commit" to the group's positions.

"Because of the complexity of crime and drugs in our communities, it would simply not be appropriate to communicate in that manner," Harmon wrote.

FAST officials respond that there are no surprises: pastors meet with elected officials weeks before the action.

The pastors said the churches are trying to hold public officials accountable to the community.

•••

Since it formed in 2004, FAST has had three previous actions with public officials in St. Petersburg. Transportation, affordable housing and prekindergarten services have been among the churches' previous concerns.

The churches count increased public funding in those areas — including a county Housing Trust Fund and a promise of 3,000 affordable housing units — among their successes.

To develop the agenda for the Largo action, the congregations held "house" and "one-on-one" meetings to find out what problems are on people's minds.

Despite the collapse of the real estate market, people are still concerned about the cost of housing.

Largo pastor Willie McClendon said he knows a mother with two children who pays $1,350 for a three-bedroom home.

Rent takes up more than half of her $30,000 annual income.

People are also concerned about crime, McClendon said. There have been several shootings and other high-profile crimes in North Greenwood and St. Petersburg in recent months.

Members of McClendon's flock at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on 118th Street N are harassed by drug dealers, he said.

He added that a senior center on 119th Street N was closed temporarily because of drug-dealing occurring nearby.

Members of some churches have gathered dozens of "hot spot" cards with information on homes where they have seen criminal activity.

So in hopes officials will help improve his community, he is taking 200 people to the action.

"The Bible tells us, 'Speak for the poor, speak for those who cannot get justice,' " he said. "Hopefully those who can make some changes will make some changes."

Jose Cardenas can be reached

at jcardenas@sptimes.com

or (727) 445-4224.

If you go

An expected 2,000 members of Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) are schedued to hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo.

>>FAST FACTS

If you go

About 2,000 members of Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) are scheduled to hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo.

Group will discuss crime, housing problems in Pinellas 04/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 6:51pm]
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