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HOMELESS WHITTLE WHAT LITTLE THEY OWN

Starting today, they won't be allowed to leave their belongings on St. Petersburg's sidewalks.

Michael O'Donald wasn't sure which shirt or pair of pants he should throw away.

But he knew he needed to get rid of some of his clothing and blankets or the city would undoubtedly get rid of it for him.

"I've got to condense this," said O'Donald, 69, gesturing toward his pile of belongings as he sat outdoors on a cardboard, makeshift bed Thursday morning.

Throughout downtown St. Petersburg this week, homeless people downsized their collection of personal items or searched for storage in an attempt to comply with two new city ordinances.

The ordinances, which take effect today, prohibit people from sleeping on public land during the day or leaving personal items along the public right of way, including sidewalks.

People whose belongings remain after tomorrow morning will be given a 36-hour warning before their items are seized. Items that are deemed hazardous will be removed immediately.

Those found lounging on public land will first be asked to move. Repeat offenders could be arrested.

To help accommodate the homeless, the city opened a free storage unit at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter on 15th Street N. A security guard will monitor the area.

Blankets, alcohol, drugs and food items will not be accepted at the unit, said Patricia Waltrich, executive director of the shelter.

"We are hoping that they do take advantage of it," Waltrich said. "This is all that some of these people have in the whole world. So this is an effort to help them hang onto their stuff."

Already, some people have started to clean up their sidewalk homes.

A group of homeless men filled garbage bags with mildew-stained blankets outside City Hall Wednesday. The heap of sleeping bags, boxes, shopping carts and blankets that formed there in recent months slowly began to recede.

Outside St. Vincent's, where comforters, pillows and suitcases line the street, some people began taking inventory of their belongings Thursday morning.

"There is a lot of stuff here," said Mike Lile, 54, who has been homeless for nearly a month. "It's an eyesore for the neighborhood, but some people can't help it."

Some men and women are unsure how they will spend their days once the ordinance goes into effect.

"We are supposed to disappear every morning," O'Donald said.

Hopeful for change

The ordinances are the city's latest attempt to balance the needs of residents and business owners with those of an increasingly visible homeless population.

Other recent measures include stricter rules prohibiting new tent cities from forming and the expansion of a no-panhandling zone downtown.

The clean sidewalk ordinance has the support of many business owners and downtown residents who have complained for months about loitering, panhandling and the heaps of belongings left on sidewalks. Today, they will cross their fingers that relief has finally come.

"I am so happy the city is taking action," said Judy Henzel, director of the Paul R. Hortin Child Development Center at Christ United Methodist Church on Fifth Street N. "In the past year, I have had to clean up urine. I have had to clean up feces. It's unpleasant, and I don't think it is healthy."

Council chairman Jamie Bennett said he looks forward to walking into City Hall without having to step around sleeping bags and blankets.

"City Hall is a pretty special place for all of us. It's our main building and it's a historic building," he said. "What they did, it wasn't helping."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

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