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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"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.

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