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.