1. Florida Politics

Sue Carlton: Tampa stands at crossroads over its homeless

Published May 8, 2013

Nowhere is this town's dilemma over the homeless better illustrated than on a single city block off Tampa Street.

Just north of downtown, this particular stretch is not quite a part of the shiny skyscrapers, bustling restaurants and picturesque parks that signal a city taking off — though Tampa boosters sure hope one day it will be.

Still, amid the old buildings and vacant lots is exactly the kind of business those boosters dream about: The Bush Ross law firm, a lovely building that practically reeks of affluence and Important Legal Doings. As a bonus, it sits across from Stetson law school, an even more impressive structure that also signals desirable development even on this end of downtown.

And adjacent to all this is a scruffy square of a city park all but given over to the homeless.

Any time of day you can see a dozen people and more camped under the park's small trees in blessed patches of shade. They stretch out on benches and in the grass, talking or reading or sleeping with backpacks for pillows.

"You don't know where else to go," a 31-year-old woman named Rosemary King tells me, and better here than in front of somebody's business, right? "Just let us have one good general area where we could get our thoughts together," she says.

What you will not likely see in Phil Bourquardez Park — named for the son of a pioneer family and pronounced by some like Bacardi the rum — are downtown workers in suits and heels brown-bagging it for some chamber of commerce ad about a city on the move.

So Tampa is at a crossroads. Panhandling of cars has been largely restricted, and now the City Council is looking at banning panhandling downtown, in Ybor City and at ATMs (and it's hard for anyone to muster up an argument against the ATM part). As in other Tampa Bay cities wrestling with the headaches of homelessness, they're also considering rules restricting the stashing of one's stuff in public, outdoor urinating and sleeping in parks and on sidewalks.

Then there's what you could call the Compassion Catch. The courts have held that with such rules you need alternatives, like shelters and beds and housing, or you could be calling homelessness a crime.

This is one wicked tangle of a dilemma, a city's image versus its compassion, and sure, you can throw safety in there, too. In the park you hear stories involving bad luck and tragedy, mental illness and crime, alcohol and drugs. I ask Rosemary King what landed her here and she starts with a stolen wallet, a downward spiral, a lot of "drama." There are a million stories, but these are people crowding a city park with nowhere much else to go, some of them hitting up patrons outside Ybor cafes. A city's dilemma.

Those who have long worked on this thorny problem will tell you the answer is at least in part beds and services. Here, it has to be the City Council and the mayor (and could there be a bigger downtown booster than Bob Buckhorn?) working with the county for answers practical and compassionate. It's places like Cypress Landing, which opened in January with 23 apartments for the chronically homeless. It's a good hard look at Pinellas' Safe Harbor, housing some 300 people a night.

Because even a city on the move can choose between pushing a problem to where no one can see it and actually doing something about it.