Homeless find storage and more in The Locker Project. So why can’t it open?

The Locker Project is a response to what many deem a “criminalization of homelessness,” because of the laws’ perceived socioeconomic discrimination and the particular targeting of homeless survival techniques including panhandling and the setting up of temporary residences, such as tents. The facility, located at 1626 Central Avenue, has been retrofitted since June of last year with 300 refinished lockers, separate male and female showers and, on the other side of the unit, separate male and female restrooms. Once open, the facility will be staffed by volunteers, open to the public (homeless and homeowner alike), and accessible twenty hours a day. According to Serve the People House of Worship’s Eric Rubin, who spearheaded the project until six weeks ago, “It not only benefits the homeless, who represent the thrust of who it benefits, but it benefits downtown businesses,” and families who have lost or are in danger of losing their homes, as well.


But according to the Development Services Department, the City department responsible for granting occupancy permits, the area is not zoned correctly for the type of business Celebrate Outreach! wants to open.


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“Based on the information that we were given, we decided that it would be a personal care or drop-in center,” says Phillip Lazzara, Zoning Official with the Development Services Department, “and we have to be able to fit it in under something to allow it to be used or not.”


1626 Central Avenue is part of an area zoned DC-2, or Downtown Center, in the Central Business District (CBD), which does not allow for such services, listed under the category of Social Service Agency. St. Petersburg’s Land Development Regulations describe a Social Service Agency as:


"[A] facility that provides a daytime communal atmosphere open to the public for the provision of services to persons in need of assistance due to age, physical or mental disability, illness or injury including but not limited to supervision of self-administered medication, aid in personal hygiene, eating and drinking, ambulation, dressing or recreation," including drop-in centers.


Said Lazzara, “Based upon the scope of the use as they described it to us, we determined that that use would not be permitted by the zoning regulations in that specific district. However, there are districts in the city that do permit this kind of use and we’d be happy to discuss their ideas to establish this kind of use in one of those areas.”


But, Rubin insists, this is not the kind of facility The Locker Project is going to be: “We told them that it was not a social service, it was not a drop-in center, people were not going to be staying there. This is a Community Organization under the matrix.”


Rubin is referring to the City’s zoning, or "Use Permissions" matrix, which lays out, in clear black and white, the kinds of businesses allowable in certain areas of the city. Rubin says Celebrate Outreach! studied the Matrix and sought the guidance of several city officials, including former Council-member Jamie Bennett; Code Enforcement Operations Manager Gary Bush; and Major Sharon Carron of the Police Department, as well as Kirsten Clanton of Southern Legal Counsel, before beginning construction on the building. In September of last year Southern Legal Counsel, along with Florida Institutional Legal Services and the National Law Center, filed suit against the City of St. Petersburg for what was described as, “the [un]constitutionality of a number of ordinances and practices that target homeless individuals living in St. Petersburg.”


According to the City’s zoning matrix, a “Club, Community Service, and Fraternal” business is:


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"Any not-for-profit organization whose primary purpose is to provide a service which benefits the general public, such as labor and political organizations, business associations and professional membership organizations, and civic and not for profit clubs whose primary function is to provide social and humanitarian services to the community (i.e., Women's Club, League of Women Voters, Garden Club, Junior League, Jaycees, Kiwannis, Masons, Rotary Club, Shriners and others of a similar nature)."


Says Rubin: “It fits into that exactly, and that’s where they’re totally wrong on this.”


A well-known homeless advocate in St. Petersburg, Rubin has ruffled some feathers over the course of his career. In 2007, he was the last protestor to leave the steps of the Mahaffey theater during the infamous GOP debates, and earlier that year was accused, along with another homeless advocate, of exploiting the Tent City debate to gain political attention: “This is all because Eric Rubin and Bruce (Wright) are going to lose their pre-eminence,” said then Council-member Jamie Bennett.


Rubin says when he went into the Development Services Department to apply for the occupancy permit, they wouldn’t even let him apply. He said they offered him an appeal, but, “How can there be an appeal when we haven’t officially applied, yet?” He did not remember who he spoke to.


According to Lazzara, Rubin scheduled a meeting with the Department for September 18th, but, “Rubin called and canceled and they haven’t heard back from him since.”


Rubin stepped back from the leadership position six weeks ago, but remains closely involved with the project. The group’s new leader, Tom Snapp, a retired Lutheran pastor, says, “There’s no reason why they should deny the license for it,” and says he’s going to do whatever he can to get it open. Says Snapp, “We’re going to keep applying until we get it.”

Celebrate Outreach! is a conglomeration of Tampa Bay churches whose mission is, “preventing and ending homelessness in our area through social justice, advocacy, community education and direct service.” The partnership is responsible for organizing a popular Friday night meal, Saturday morning breakfast, the initiation of cold-shelters and, most recently, The Locker Project.

On January 24th, 2008, the City of St. Petersburg passed an ordinance stating that any personal property, “including clothing, bedding, materials, equipment, furnishings, furniture, appliances, construction materials, or any items which are not designated to be used outdoors,” cannot be stored on public property or on public rights-of-way. Furthermore, if a person violates this ordinance, regardless of their access—or lack, thereof—to storage space, that person’s belongings can be confiscated and stored in a City-owned trailer for up to thirty days, and then disposed of. This ordinance is listed on the City of St. Petersburg’s website under the heading, “Ordinances & Laws Regarding Homelessness,” and is accompanied by three other ordinances written into the City code since March 2007 regarding St. Petersburg’s approach to ‘cleaning up’ the problem of homelessness in the Downtown Center.

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