The problem that can't be swept away

Will the homelessness problem in Tampa Bay get worse before it gets better?

The sun is setting over Williams Park, and twilight begins to envelop the homeless sprawled out in the grass on benches and blankets. Sundown is the cue for most of them to move on to the spot where they'll stay for the night. About 16 of them walk directly across the street and settle along the empty storefronts on Third Avenue N. Some immediately start to snore; others sit up talking to their friends.

Here, in the middle of St. Petersburg's quaint downtown core, steps away from BayWalk, across from the $100-million Grand Bohemian Hotel project, is a regular encampment of street people, drawn to the block's unlit covered walkway and deep storefront recesses. Some of the men and women who stay here keep neat and tidy bundles of blankets and clothes. Others allow their belongings to overflow onto the curb. Trash lines the sidewalk.

One of the men isn't here to sleep, but to talk. Timothy Toth, who calls himself a "street social worker" and moves in and out of homelessness himself, describes the harassment street people have endured the past year — raids on camps in the woods, illegal searches in the parks, random beat-downs by off-duty officers (all incidents denied by police). "When all of downtown turns into money, [police officers] want to be invited to the parties," he gives as an explanation for the harassment.

A woman wrapped in a blanket walks up and interrupts him.

"The police are going to sweep here, tonight," she says, before gathering some of her clothes on the ground and rushing away.

Just the mention of police causes the men and women to rustle around. Within minutes, the rest of the homeless on the block start packing up their bedrolls and clothes, stuffing them into large plastic bags.

"I just got out of jail, I'm not going back," one woman says, rolling her belongings into a sleeping bag and heading down the street.

An older man, probably in his 60s, looks angry and exhausted while he meticulously folds his bedding and stacks it on a small cart. He groans as he lifts his bag up and shuffles down the street.

The homeless and their advocates say that homeless "sweeps" — a loaded euphemism for how the city is dealing with a huge homeless problem in a revitalized downtown — are a common occurrence, a blunt instrument for dealing with complaints of panhandling and public sleeping.

City leaders and police vehemently deny that these sweeps occur, and indeed that night no police showed up, despite the rumor. But throughout Tampa Bay, the homeless say they are increasingly the target of attempts to push them out of sight.

And even though both counties have signed onto the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness — an initiative announced by President Bush in 2003 that attempts to bring together citizens, service providers, elected officials and the business community — the chances of success look increasingly slim. In Hillsborough County, where the plan was put in place in 2002 before Bush's policy was announced, the rate of homelessness has actually increased 70 percent — to the point where Hillsborough is now the county with the sixth highest homeless population in the United States. This, at a time when other cities are experiencing drops in homelessness — by 30 percent in Miami and 28 percent in Dallas and San Francisco. Pinellas County joined the plan in January, but if funding shortfalls and community indifference beset the initiative as they have in Tampa, Pinellas too will see problems.

It's been a hard year for the homeless on both sides of the Bay:

* This summer, the St. Petersburg City Council clarified its parks ordinance, extending parks' boundaries to the curb. Homeless advocates say the measure was intended to ban the homeless from sleeping along the Bay or Williams Park.

* Last month, police broke up a longtime homeless camp at a parking lot adjacent to St. Vincent's shelter, threatening those who would not leave with arrest. The city of St. Petersburg is leasing the lot from the Department of Transportation. "Tons of people slept here," says one homeless man. "It was a refuge." Earlier this year, several homeless were chased from an empty lot by Mahaffey Theater.

* The city has installed dividers on several downtown benches; some say it is a way to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.

* Bruce Wright, a homeless advocate in St. Pete for 13 years, has a video that purportedly shows a Nov. 18 homeless sweep along Central Avenue between Second and Fourth streets. In the video, the camera pans from two unmarked police cars and a paddy wagon to three officers hovering over a bedraggled man, shining a flashlight in his face as he stares ahead, dazed, abruptly awakened from a deep snooze. Wright, on his regular Wednesday night jaunt to distribute sandwiches and water to the downtown homeless, says he saw six St. Petersburg police officers in as many vehicles rousting several homeless men and women sleeping along downtown's main strip.

• In downtown Tampa, after two years of not enforcing a 2004 ordinance requiring a permit to feed people in city parks, police harassed two organizations in August and October for feeding the homeless in Curtis Hixon Park, across from the Skypoint condo project.

• Tampa city officials erected a 6-foot-tall fence around Herman Massey Park, where several homeless used to gather.

• One social worker from Metropolitan Ministries says he has noticed more homeless people heading to the outskirts of downtown in order to sleep. And for years, police have moved the homeless off of HART Line benches and downtown parks, forcing many homeless out of downtown or away from one of their last refuges, the steps of the Sacred Heart Church on South Florida Avenue.

It's not just the urban centers where they are unwelcome. In Pinellas Park, the homeless say police constantly harass them. They even go so far as to not carry their backpacks to try and avoid being noticed.

"We get harassed every day," says John Harper, who has been homeless for nearly three years. "If you have a bag, they'll stop you and ask for I.D. You can't even go down the railroad tracks. You go two miles down and they still come up with horses and find you."

Recently, the Haven of Rest Mission on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park has received zoning violation notices for insufficient parking. The pastor there says city leaders are trying to oust him, and the homeless he serves, from the city (see sidebar).

But even as the number of safe sleeping spots dwindles, the number of homeless is increasing dramatically. A 2005 survey completed by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County found 11,023 men, women and children without a home — a 26 percent increase from the 8,082 counted in 2003. A similar survey conducted by the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless found 4,540 homeless; two years prior, they counted 2,305 adults and children.

During the same time period, services for the homeless have decreased. A study by the HCHC found that there are only enough services to help 13 percent of the homeless living in the county. The numbers of beds in emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing have all decreased. In Pinellas County, advocates estimate only 1,907 homeless individuals are served by shelters, transitional or supportive housing. And these remain full.

Homeless service providers and advocates say the face of homelessness is changing. There are more women, children and working people without homes. Service providers in both counties estimate more than 20 percent of the homeless in Tampa Bay are children. In Hillsborough County, almost a third of the homeless work full time; in Pinellas, the number of those with some type of income reaches almost 50 percent. Veterans make up a quarter of all street people in both counties. And despite the misconception that Tampa Bay attracts transients from around the country who spend the winter in the sun and head north in the summer, the majority of homeless have lived in Tampa Bay for two years or more; nearly 25 percent were born here.

City officials, business leaders and social service providers agree the homeless population in both counties is reaching a crisis level. With the visible increase in homelessness occurring at the same time that downtown St. Pete and Tampa are trying to redefine their formerly seedy images, there's bound to be friction.

"The problem of the homeless in St. Pete has probably the single biggest impact on downtown," says Don Shea, president of the St. Pete Downtown Partnership. Shea says the number and frequency of complaints — public urination and defecation, panhandling, sleeping in doorways — have risen. The result, he says, is "a drag on the economy." Last month, Shea, a member of the Pinellas Homeless Policy Group, met with 22 frustrated business owners to discuss ways to deal with the problem.

Shea's counterpart in Tampa, Christine Burdick, says downtown Tampa's development has shed more light on the enduring social issue.

"There are now more people aware of the homeless because of the attention that downtown has received," she says. "There is a greater sense of urgency about trying to find some solutions."

But "congregations and public feedings" still remain a concern for business owners, she says.

Tim Baker, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association, says homelessness may be the number one issue downtown residents are concerned about.

"Some residents are most concerned with the homeless themselves, with finding a way to get them into shelter and of attempting to address whatever problems caused them to become homeless in the first place," he says. "Others are concerned mostly with the negative effects that the homeless have on downtown and simply want them out of here."

The crisis has put people like Sarah Snyder, director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, in a tough position.

"Everybody is between a rock and a hard place," she says, her voice conveying exasperation. "The homeless need someplace to sleep, and those living and working in downtown areas don't want people going the bathroom in front of their homes and businesses."

She is trying to bring residents, business leaders, elected officials and social service providers together to tackle these issues through the newly adopted 10 Year Plan. From its office in Tampa, the HCHC is trying the same approach.

Touted as the answer to decades of homelessness rooted in the country's major cities, the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness outlines a step-by-step, year-by-year process for streamlining homeless services and aggressively dealing with the most visible homeless population — the "chronic homeless." By focusing on housing the street people who are stuck in the revolving doors of emergency shelters and soup kitchens, and then trying to direct them into substance abuse or work programs, the plan predicts the recidivism rate will be much lower.

"The emergency shelter system is not working," says Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the HCHC, which oversees Hillsborough County's 10 Year Plan.

Focusing on the chronic homeless also has another positive — it saves money. Studies in cities on both U.S. coasts have found that the chronic homeless use up an average of $50,000 a year in trips to the emergency room, jails and short-term substance abuse centers. What's more, this group — making up approximately 40 percent of the homeless in Tampa Bay — use more than 50 percent of resources.

But not everyone agrees the 10 Year Plan will actually end homelessness — at least not in 10 years.

The initiative requires social service agencies receiving HUD money earmarked for the homeless to buy into the plan and tailor it to their city — a sort of No Child Left Behind Act for the homeless. (So far, 283 cities or counties have created 10 Year Plans.) But not unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government is punting much of the funding responsibilities to the state, county and local governments. After three years of cutting funding for the program, the 2007 federal budget shows a $209 million increase in funding for Continuum of Care (CoC) grants that primarily serve the homeless. But other programs — like Section 8 vouchers that can prevent families from becoming homeless — have been cut dramatically. Other cuts, to Medicare or Community Development Grants, can also have the effect of creating more homeless.

In Hillsborough County, the funding for the homeless is not only millions of dollars lower than it is in U.S. cities that are showing some success with the plan, it decreased between 2004 and 2005.

"The grants are either sustaining programs or starting to fill a hole here or there," says HCHC spokeswoman Weikel. "What we've had to do is a lot of piecing."

This poses a problem for increasing funding next year. According to the new federal guidelines, CoC grant amounts will depend on how organizations advance the goals of ending chronic homelessness, which includes showing an increase in permanent housing. HCHC has not shown much progress for either of these goals, setting itself up for a vicious cycle comparable to one the homeless endure — without money, homeless persons cannot find a home, and without a stable home it's virtually impossible to save money. (Pinellas County's CoC funding has remained steady, experiencing a few dips and climbs, but they have an advantage in having just begun their 10 Year Plan and its required assessments.)

Sitting in his dusty office, Pastor Tom Atchison of New Life Pentecostal Church of God laughs and calls the 10 Year Plan "a joke." Atchison runs a 50-bed shelter at 8535 N. Nebraska Ave. and feeds close to 200 people every Saturday in downtown Tampa. (New Life was one of the organizations hassled by police this fall after complaints from a condo developer.) In addition, he also runs a smaller housing and rehab program that sets rigid guidelines for AA/NA meetings and requires participants to get full-time work and a savings account. It's a graduated program, in which just a handful of people are invited to go from the downtown feedings to the shelter and then to the transitional housing. His experiences have led him to believe that 99 percent of homeless are dealing with drug or alcohol abuse, or severe mental illness. Giving these people a house or apartment without dealing with their lifestyle first will end in disaster, he says.

"They want to give them homes, but they'll end up stripping the copper right out of the walls to feed their habit," he says.

What's more, he says, the HCHC is streamlining its funding, requiring those who want grants to be members of the HCHC for a year or more. Atchison says several groups looking to open more shelter beds and recovery programs are being shut out of the process.

"We'd be more successful with a wide variety of people [helping to end homelessness]," he says. "There are a lot of organizations that want to start shelters, but they cannot get the time of day."

Instead, he says, federal and state funding, funneled through the HCHC, goes to the same organizations every year — the same organizations that haven't solved the problem in years.

"I'm doing more with that $30,000 than they are with $5 million," Atchison says, referring to money he received this year from a federal grant after attending five years of HCHC meetings.

Part of that is due to HCHC policy. For years, when it came time to divvy up CoC funds, HCHC members voted for their own projects, effectively putting a stranglehold on funding any new ventures. (This year, HCHC will convene an independent committee to distribute the funds more fairly.)

Weikel concedes there is a lack of funding for organizations. But she says the federal government has not lived up to its funding promises, leaving state and county governments to pick up the slack. She also points to county residents and business leaders.

"Our elected officials care about what the community cares about," she says, adding the group plans to perform more advocacy this year to get citizens involved. "We can't do it without the community, but we have not seen the community support for the issue of homelessness."

Until there is a groundswell, she says, the 10 Year Plan will continue to falter.

"Our 10 Year Plan ultimately needs some revision," she says. "We can only do little bits and pieces."

But even if the counties get through the first few years of the plan, streamlining agencies and coordinating services, there is still the crucial aspect of affordable housing. The state was supposed to address this need in 1992 through the William E. Sadowski Act, which created a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing in Florida. The Sadowski Act increased the documentary stamp tax, paid each time a real estate transfer is made. But in 2005, the state legislature capped the fund at $247 million, and the extra funds were diverted to other areas of the state budget. As trailer parks and apartment complexes are turned into condos, more and more people are straddling the line between housed and homeless.

"We are creating future homeless by not having affordable housing," says PCCH's Snyder.

On Black Friday, a week after documenting the Central Avenue homeless sweep, Wright led a protest in front of St. Petersburg's BayWalk shopping center. A noisy bunch of approximately 50 young and old activists and a handful of street people held signs and chanted, "Homelessness is not a crime!" Busy shoppers sneered and heckled the protesters. One blonde teenager tensed up as she passed them. "Eww, I don't want homeless near me." A heavily bearded protester told another fellow chanter, "All we are right now is a pain in the ass."

Planning to sleep on the sidewalk that night, Wright wanted the city to arrest the impromptu campers to force a constitutional court battle, but after being informed that the 50 or so people would be tolerated, he changed plans. After negotiating with police, he marched to the closed Williams Park where three activists who refused to leave the park were arrested for trespassing. Wright says a court battle will be pending.

While he says the 10 Year Plan has some good ideas, Wright stresses that the homeless need help now. He argues that city leaders need to take drastic steps to increase emergency housing to get people off the streets, and until that is done, the police should stop persecuting the homeless.

"If we'll say we need to deal with this problem, let's have a place for the homeless to sleep and not be harassed," he says, adding that protests will continue monthly until there is some policy change. "All it would take is the mayor of this city to tell law enforcement that we would like a moratorium. No bed, no arrest."

Mayor Baker did not return repeated calls for comment, but Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn says a moratorium is not possible.

"We can't just unilaterally enforce some laws and not enforce others," he says, adding the city has tried to meet the needs of street people. Recently, St. Petersburg deployed an outreach team made up of a police officer and social worker to help the homeless get into support programs.

Snyder of the PCCH says the Homeless Leadership Network, charged with implementing the 10 Year Plan, is already working on getting more emergency shelter beds, but it's a long process.

"We can't build a new building overnight," she says. "And we can't take over an old building without the money to rehab it."

And as far as opening city bathrooms for 24-hour use, another one of Wright's demands, St. Pete Councilman Jamie Bennett says police have reservations about keeping existing bathrooms open. He says the restroom buildings are built in such a way that inhibits visibility, which could make them havens of crime.

"If we had the money to build new ones, we would," he adds.

The bathroom issue shows that it could take some time before city governments embrace even the smaller goals of the 10 Year Plan.

"As in all politics, it takes time," says Bennett, who is also chair of the Homeless Leadership Network. "I know there's a lot of frustration with the advocates. But the longer that we're out there and [other elected officials] see the good work we're doing, the easier it will be for them to jump all over it."

In the meantime, will Tampa Bay's homeless situation get worse before it gets better?

"It's already gotten worse before it's gotten better," says HCHC's Weikel. "The economic situation for service workers has not improved. It's gotten worse. People can't afford housing. It definitely could get worse before it gets better."

Back in Pinellas Park, the soup kitchen is closing and John Harper packs up his few clothes and an apple to make the long trek to his place in the woods. He admits that a trip to the gas station for a few beers is inevitable.

"I have to have a couple drinks at night to go to sleep," he says and then somewhat defensively adds, "You're sleeping in the woods!"

Harper, originally from Scotland, says he is a former engineer who put two kids through college on his $80,000 salary. But then his wife died and he spiraled into depression and drinking. He moved to Louisiana to dredge canals for years until Hurricane Katrina hit. He says his whole crew, living on the canal, was stranded in the Louisiana swamps. Two of his co-workers died. He moved to Pinellas Park afterwards, in search of something new.

Now Harper is stuck in the cycle of day labor: He wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m., washes up at a gas station and heads down to one of the day labor offices, sitting around drinking coffee until a job comes up. Some days there is no work, and he wanders the streets. But even if he's hired onto a job, he rarely makes more than $40 a day. Between the drinking and other homeless robbing him, he is never able to save anything. And where would he put it anyway?

"It's pretty horrendous sometimes," he admits. "I stay alone and I drink alone."

He says some halfway houses and a savings account would help. Maybe a work program that saves some of the money for him. For those who ask if his family would help him, he gets indignant.

"What am I going to say to my children?" he says. "That I'm homeless? That I'm living in the woods?"

Between the police and the people who sneer at him on the street, Harper wishes people could understand that homelessness is not a choice — it's a hole that keeps getting deeper.

"You try living out here for a week without anything," he says, almost pleading. "Living with nothing."

On his way out of the mission, Harper's plastic bag rips. He doesn't say a word, gathers up his few belongings, tries to tie it back together, gives up and continues heading down Park Boulevard.

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