During the quarterly police update with Police Chief Chuck Harmon Thursday morning, the issue of homelessness once again came to a head.
In response to information that 20 beds are empty at the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter, Councilmember Leslie Curran raised concerns about safety for children and families at Unity Park.
Why are they empty if theyve got beds? Its a known fact to eat free 3 or 4 times a day and get free clothes, go to Williams Park," Curran said. "We dont need to tolerate that.
Mayor Bill Foster shot back, citing a lack of bed space overall.
There are reasons we cannot enforce the ordinances, Foster said. The reason they are not taken involuntarily is that we dont have space to accommodate all. We cant choose 20 out of 50 because we dont have enough beds.
I guarantee if the homeless were sleeping under the bridge in Shore Acres, they wouldnt be there for long.
Foster fired back.
You are speaking about the homeless people like they are cattle, Foster said.
Foster called Curan's demeanor insulting and citing issues of constitutionality in forcing the homeless to move and legal problems in the citys dealings with the homeless are still a major matter.
Depending on how much you are willing to spend on legal defenses, there are reasons we are proceeding cautiously and patiently, Foster said. We still have a law suit pending.
Curran didn't back down.
I dont have an insulting demeanor, Curran said. I dont appreciate it being said that I dont understand the plight of the homeless or what constitutional rights are.
St. Pete Police Chief Harmon clarified that it is illegal for the homeless to sleep in residential areas.
It would be very good for downtown businesses to have a little break and maybe too for the homeless, to sleep somewhere else, Curran said.
Foster and the Police Department noted that some of those still sleeping near City Hall, Mirror Lake and Williams Park choose not to go to St. Vincent de Paul.
They chose Unity park because it close to where they can shower and get food, Foster said. There are reasons why they chose urban centers because they are close to resources."
Amid the discourse, Councilmember Kennedy reminded Curran and Foster about the focus of the current meeting.
I want to keep focus that this is a workshop with the chief and not workshop about homeless.
Councilmember Wengay Newton asked the chief about space in the county jail versus the lack of space in homeless shelters.
What is the difference between Pinellas county jail and St. Vincent de paul?
Well for one, you are being incarcerated.
The conversation concluded with Foster reiterating that once beds are available, the ordinance will be enforced.
Once we know that we have a sufficient number of mat spaces to enforce the ordinance, some will go to Safe Harbor, some will go to st. Vincent de paul they will be forced to go," Foster said. "We will fill those beds."