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Worries about arrests put homeless census on hold

TAMPA — As counties statewide prepare for their annual homeless count, Hillsborough will wait another month.

Too cold? Too many transients?

Actually, homeless advocates fear police will arrest so many homeless to clear the streets for the Super Bowl that any count would be inaccurate.

"It's happened during other big events when there are a lot of out-of-town visitors," said Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer of the county's Homeless Coalition. "But we know it's occurring now because some of our providers heard from a (police) captain at a meeting that they were arresting homeless people and holding them in jail."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said there is no such mandate.

"Our primary mission is the safety of our visitors," she said. "So the homeless wouldn't rank high on that. We arrest people for breaking the law, not for being homeless."

But Nuckles said the plan to aggressively jail homeless people on charges such as loitering and trespassing "came straight from a captain's mouth" at a meeting. He was not at the meeting, he said, but heard about it from others, including Sara Romeo, executive director of Tampa Crossroads, a homeless advocacy group.

"There was a lot of discussion," he said. "People were appalled."

Romeo, a former state representative, would not comment on the meeting but said she knows police are conducting homeless sweeps right now.

"I'm sure homelessness hurts the image of every city that has a Super Bowl," she said. "But if we addressed this issue the other 364 days prior to Super Bowl, we wouldn't have so many homeless people to round up and hide."

The head of Pinellas County's homeless coalition said many homeless Tampa people recently have migrated to Pinellas to stay out of jail.

But "they're doing sweeps here, too," said executive director Sarah Snyder.

Like other Florida counties, Pinellas is conducting its annual homeless census beginning Monday.

It's a process involving hundreds of volunteers who count and survey homeless people throughout the county. They ask each homeless person if he or she was homeless on a specific day — in this case, Jan. 25. Using the total for that day, they project the number of homeless in a year.

The coalitions submit the numbers to the federal government at least every two years to get funding.

Hillsborough's homeless coalition asked for special permission to delay its count because of the Super Bowl.

But the director of the state's Office on Homelessness, Tom Pierce, doubted the request had anything to do with arrests.

Rather, he said, it was because cheap hotels kick locals out to raise prices for Super Bowl guests, thus skewing the homeless count.

He said he knew nothing of police sweeps.

Tampa spokeswoman Liana Lopez said Mayor Pam Iorio was not available Friday and referred questions to police.

"A lot of public officials won't talk about it," said Nuckles. "But we know it's going on."

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

Worries about arrests put homeless census on hold 01/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 12:29pm]
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