In a recent column, I described how homeless people associated with the Salvation Army facility on Fourth Street S in St. Petersburg were disrupting life for my neighbors and me by committing illegal and unsavory acts in plain view.
Reaction to the column was swift and broad, demonstrating that the public's relationship to the homeless, or perceptions of the relationship, is as much a moral issue as it is a social and economic one.
Meanwhile, several meetings related to the homeless have taken place, and some initiatives and actions have begun. The latest, and perhaps the most controversial, is the filing of a class-action lawsuit against the city by six homeless people, backed by advocacy groups, challenging the constitutionality of six recently passed ordinances aimed at homeless people.
I have not seen the lawsuit, but I have read the ordinances and the city's legal department memo to Mayor Rick Baker. The memo advises him that the "ordinances do not criminalize homelessness, instead the intent of the ordinances is to balance the needs of the homeless and their health and safety with the health and the safety of other citizens and visitors to the City of St. Petersburg."
During a meeting last week with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, Baker spoke about his concern for homeless people. He highlighted, for example, the city's strong support of Pinellas Hope on 126th Ave. N, west of Fourth Street. The facility opened in December 2007 as a five-month program for as many as 250 homeless individuals 18 and older.
Baker said the project has been instrumental in reducing the number of homeless people living on downtown streets. The city estimates there are still between 100 and 120 homeless downtown, which the mayor attributes in part to the economic recession. The planned construction of Pinellas Hope II, which will include permanent housing, should help reduce that number. But the mayor and others wonder whether it will ever be possible to build our way out of the homeless problem.
The bad old days of slashing the tents of the homeless and tossing their belongings are long gone in St. Petersburg. Regardless of the allegations in the federal lawsuit, the city is making a reasonable attempt at balancing the rights of the homeless with the rights of the rest of us to enjoy public parks, sidewalks and other public areas downtown without feeling threatened or harassed.
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who also spoke with the editorial board, is concerned about accusations that the city is insensitive to the plight of the homeless. Harmon said unequivocally that his officers have been instructed to respect and protect the rights of the homeless, which includes those who have lost jobs and residences because of the economy, those with mental illnesses, those addicted to alcohol or other substances and even professional scammers.
Each group poses unique problems for the police, service providers, businesses, homeowners and tourists.
In my previous column, I took the Salvation Army to task for not being a good neighbor and for turning a deaf ear to the concerns of my neighbors and me. In response to the issues I and others have raised over time, the organization is making some critical changes.
In an e-mail message, Maj. George Patterson, head of the Salvation Army of Lower Pinellas, discussed the organization's obligations in easing the conflicts: "In response to conversations with the city, assorted neighborhood spokespersons, and various department leaders at the Salvation Army, we held a town hall-style meeting on May 20, inviting all those staying in our shelters, our programs, and homeless individuals living around the city to discuss the current needs and problems of homelessness.
"We heard the concerns and comments of our surrounding neighborhoods. We are committed to being good neighbors, and we have dedicated ourselves to taking positive steps in dealing with those issues while keeping with the Salvation Army's mission of treating all individuals with human dignity."
Here are three specific changes that will begin on July 2: Individuals no longer will be permitted to take up residence outside the building; the 100 beds in the shelter will be available only those people who show need; and those who seek help must indicate that they want to be "more productive members of society."
The latter change is a huge leap for the Salvation Army. It is known for aiding all comers. Some officials believe the time has come to stop enabling individuals who have no intention of improving their lives.
Other organizations that aid the homeless also are trying to get those they serve to understand that living on public largess is a two-way street that requires some common sense. Like the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, a longtime advocate of the homeless, is using tough love to teach those it serves lessons in personal responsibility and being good neighbors.
A St. Vincent handbill for homeless people warns: "Starting immediately, if you are arrested, issued a city code citation or break of any of the 'Ten Commandments' set by SVDP, you will be subject to being trespassed off of SVDP property and SVDP will not provide services that include eating, sleeping, showering or using the restrooms. Please clean up after yourselves by putting all garbage in the trash receptacle provided in the nearby vicinity. Be respectful of yourself, each other, and the surrounding neighbors."
During my private meeting with Maj. Patterson, he said he realizes that for organizations to effectively serve homeless people, nearby homeowners must feel safe and positive enough to buy into the programs. He is absolutely right. This is an excellent message for all homeless advocates, including those who just filed the lawsuit.