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St. Petersburg police tell homeless people they can no longer sleep on streets

ST. PETERSBURG — Police officers swatted at bugs and checked their cell phones. Mayor Bill Foster shook hands with passers-by. A squad car sat idle — there was no need for it Wednesday night.

The plan had been to spend the evening outside City Hall, telling homeless people that police now can enforce a 2007 ordinance that prohibits sleeping in public rights of way. The only catch? There was no one to talk to.

Police and officials were hard pressed to find homeless people downtown on Wednesday, this in a town where just a few months ago nearly 200 people regularly slept in parks and on sidewalks, especially around City Hall.

"For the first time, we didn't have to clean up the street. There was nobody here last night," said Robert Marbut, a consultant hired by the city in October to help deal with homeless issues. "Everything's coming together."

Police haven't been able to enforce the city's public sleeping ban before because of a lack of available beds in area shelters.

Now that Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's homeless shelter, is operating with excess capacity, police have started giving homeless people options: go to the shelter, find somewhere else to sleep or be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.

"Those who really want to exercise the right to sleep on a sidewalk need to do in another county," Foster said Wednesday.

Police approached about 29 people Tuesday night, the first night that the ordinance could be enforced. About 23 went to Safe Harbor; others went to hotels or other shelters.

On Wednesday night, officers waited outside City Hall to offer assistance again, but few people walked by. Williams Park and Mirror Lake, traditional stomping grounds for the city's homeless, were nearly empty.

One woman, wiping tears from her eyes, approached Officer Rich Linkiewicz outside City Hall and asked for help. Marbut helped her into a police van.

"Hop on in, dear. You're fine. Hang in there," he said before Linkiewicz drove her to Turning Point, a local detox facility.

Foster, who followed officers on patrol Tuesday night, said he was surprised by how well the ordinance has been received.

"I truly expected some resistance, but people are very grateful," he said. "(Tuesday) night was amazing. We had 100 percent compliance."

Still, some are skeptical.

Pat Alston, 52, who's been off the streets for eight months, said it's hard for the homeless to transition once they move to a shelter, and many return to the streets or continue using drugs and alcohol.

"I've been talking to a lot of people about (the ordinance)," she said, sitting in Williams Park at dusk Wednesday night. "People will come out (of the shelter), drink, get high and then go straight back. It's very easy to get stuck."

Police say they're not looking to arrest the homeless — just get them off the streets. However, officers will arrest repeat offenders or people who refuse to leave the right-of-way, police spokesman Mike Puetz said.

Marbut usually circles downtown until midnight or 2 a.m., taking stock of the city's homeless. When he arrived last year, it wasn't unusual to find 180 people in Williams Park alone. On Tuesday night, he found just two in all of downtown.

"I wanted to wake people up and tell them what I saw," he said, laughing.

St. Petersburg police tell homeless people they can no longer sleep on streets 07/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:07am]
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