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St. Petersburg targets homeless man who lives in backyard shed

ST. PETERSBURG

He's lived for years in the dirt alley off 18th Street and Burlington Avenue N, the white-bearded homeless veteran everyone knows as C.J.

His real name is Jon Bradshaw. For some, he is the neighborhood's trusted watchman. Those folks turned a blind eye when someone built a wooden shed so Bradshaw, 69, could lay his head somewhere.

Others view Bradshaw, often seen nursing a can of Natural Ice, as a neighborhood scar — an unwanted reminder of the old homeless tent city under Interstate 275.

Amid the city of St. Petersburg's much publicized crackdown on the homeless, an angry neighbor alerted a city code inspector to Bradshaw's makeshift home.

The resulting battle has pit neighbor against neighbor, and thrust Bradshaw from his life in the shadows into the city's high-profile effort to rid downtown streets of the homeless.

"I'm being treated like the poor fox running from the hounds," Bradshaw said. "I'm getting weary."

• • •

When William Bechtel bought his one-story wood-frame house on Burlington Avenue in 2008, he says Bradshaw came with it. The neighborhood was rougher then. Bradshaw shooed away prowlers and thieves.

"He helped me out, man," says Bechtel, 52, an audio technician.

Bechtel, whose father was a war veteran, sympathized with Bradshaw, who says he served in the U.S. military during Vietnam but refuses to offer specifics.

Not long after Bechtel moved in, a handy neighbor built Bradshaw a one-room shed. It had a bed and easy chair, and a solar-powered shower outside. In winter, Bradshaw burned tree limbs on an outdoor stove. Bathroom? Gas station up the road.

Bradshaw likes his life "off the grid." He prefers the fresh air, describing himself as one of those "street people" who knows how to survive on a meager Social Security check.

"Every neighborhood alley ought to have one of me," Bradshaw says. "Your cop work would go away."

• • •

Sheryl Cox and her husband, Ryan, own a home and business a block away from Bradshaw's shed.

They were fed up with crime in their neighborhood a few years ago, so they started a crime watch.

They read in the paper how Mayor Bill Foster was cracking down on the homeless who sleep in the street. They'd won a few battles with drug dealers, so they thought: Why can't the city do something about C.J.?

Sheryl Cox doesn't like Bradshaw. She says he's threatened her with violence.

The couple rallied a few others, including Don Orgeron, who owns several rental properties along the alley. Orgeron tolerated Bradshaw for a decade, but says lately Bradshaw is drinking more and scares his tenants.

"The thing that this homeless man is living in … was illegally built," said Sheryl Cox. "My kids can't go down there. Why can't this guy be moved?"

• • •

The city has taken more than 85 people to Pinellas Safe Harbor since July 12, when enforcement of the public sleeping ban started.

Moving Bradshaw has proved more difficult.

The city sent Bechtel a letter in late May, warning him that using the shed as a dwelling was illegal without a permit, that it had no plumbing and was messy. It warned of $500-a-day fines.

So Bradshaw moved his beer cooler, a chair and his bicycle a few feet to a nearby driveway. He now sleeps there or in several "hidey holes" in the area.

Bechtel fired back in a letter to the city.

He argued the shed was less than 100 square feet, so it didn't need a permit. He noted the water spigot on an adjacent cottage, and said the shed was never meant to be more than a shed.

Codes director Gary Bush and St. Petersburg police homeless outreach Officer Richard Linkiewicz went to see the shed for themselves on July 26.

"He's not on the street, so he's not really doing anything wrong," said Linkiewicz, who remembers when Bradshaw lived in a 17-foot sailboat on the waterfront about five years ago. "As far as being a pain the neck, panhandling, he's not one of those guys."

Bradshaw has been arrested four times since 2008 for carrying an open container of alcohol, all misdemeanor citations.

He admits to liking his beer and chewing tobacco, but says he hasn't touched cocaine or heroin in seven years.

He doesn't like to talk about his past.

In snippets of conversation, he says he grew up in upstate New York, calls two of his children every Sunday, that he is divorced, that his parents passed away, that he worked in construction and mining in Oregon and Pasco County. As a veteran, he gets semiannual checkups and reading glasses.

The snippets are drowned out by a rant-like monologue that begins with the gap between the haves and have-nots and ends with Bradshaw's refusal to sleep in shelters or accept handouts at soup kitchens like other homeless people.

"The minute you go to those places, you're dead," he says. "You lose your independence."

• • •

A day after Bush and Linkiewicz visited the shed, the case was closed.

Bush said that after consulting with the city's lawyers, he was satisfied that Bradshaw was no longer living in the shed.

Still, records show the property is due for another inspection Aug. 16.

Meanwhile, Bradshaw would like to return to his shed.

Bechtel has moved to Tampa and now rents the house. He can't afford a lawyer to fight the city, but said he won't stand idly by if Bradshaw is hassled further.

"If they are going to come and bother C.J.," he said, "they are going to have to deal with a property owner armed with a tire iron."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727)892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg targets homeless man who lives in backyard shed 08/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 8:05pm]
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