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If St. Petersburg's homeless aren't on the streets, where are they?

Williams Park benches were mostly empty Thursday morning as city police began enforcing the new sleeping ban.

KENNETH L. HAWKINS JR. | Times

Williams Park benches were mostly empty Thursday morning as city police began enforcing the new sleeping ban.

ST. PETERSBURG — A piece of cardboard box, an empty yogurt cup and a stray blanket littered Williams Park on Thursday morning.

But where were all the people?

Besides some bus riders and a few stragglers who gathered at benches, the popular homeless hangout was practically devoid of the street people downtown has battled for so long. As St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and city police begin enforcing a recent ban on public sleeping, it appears word spread early enough to make folks leave on their own.

City officials say most of the homeless people are now in shelters, such as the new Pinellas Safe Harbor facility near the county jail.

But some on the street say they're simply scattered in darker corners.

"People are just hiding in more dangerous places," said Erin Trent, a formerly homeless woman who checks on the homeless daily to see "who got picked up" the night before.

Trent, 35, said she believes the numbers have gone down, and the shelter beds are allowing more people to use that safe option. But those who don't want to go to shelters and don't want to go to jail are still finding other alternatives.

"People are talking about, 'Oh, I found a new hidey hole,' " she said.

James Scallion, a 42-year-old homeless man, was walking around Williams Park on Thursday after spending the night in the outdoor courtyard of Safe Harbor. It's not much better than sleeping outside on the streets, he said, but at least police didn't hassle him. He preferred to return downtown during the day.

And another newly homeless woman, 22-year-old Jamie Pereira, said she wanted to stay at Safe Harbor after spending time in jail on domestic assault charges earlier this week. But she heard from another homeless man that the shelter was full and instead crashed at a strange man's house. She went to Williams Park on Thursday.

"It's scary," she said.

While sitting on a bench, a man who only identified himself as "a citizen" approached her and asked if she wanted to go to a shelter. He made a phone call and directed her to City Hall, where a homeless outreach officer agreed to take her to Safe Harbor.

Pereira walked away but returned a few minutes later, saying "a source" told her she wouldn't get free transportation back from the shelter. She decided not to go.

People like Pereira seem to be the last holdouts, though. Business owners around downtown have noticed a dramatic drop in the homeless population downtown, especially in the evenings and early mornings.

Richard Fraze, a trustee of Christ United Methodist Church near City Hall, said he began noticing it the most in the past week.

"It's been significantly less with the urine smell and people sleeping under the edge of church, where we prefer them not to be," Fraze said.

On Tuesday night, the mayor and police swept through the streets looking for homeless sleepers and were surprised at how few were found. City Hall steps, usually crowded with sleepers overnight, were empty Wednesday about midnight. Those still sleeping on sidewalks were approached and went peacefully with officers to shelters.

Safe Harbor only has about 380 people in a facility that fits 425 or so, and as long as there are beds, the public sleeping ban can be enforced.

"I truly expected some resistance, but people are grateful," Foster told the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday, noting "100 percent compliance."

Still, Trent worried the city's optimistic view was overlooking those who were avoiding police by sleeping in alleys or abandoned buildings.

"They're still out there," she said. "And they're more likely to get assaulted or killed."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

If St. Petersburg's homeless aren't on the streets, where are they? 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 11:59pm]
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