The problem that can't be swept away

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

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• 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."

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