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When it comes to the homelessness problem, Rick Butler sees both sides

It's hard to gauge Rick Butler's attitudes on homelessness.

A self-described "radical right-winger," the Pinellas Park councilman has earned the ire of the homeless by pushing for the closure of the Haven of Rest Mission's soup kitchen (see sidebar). And as a member of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network, the entity charged with finding a solution to Pinellas County's homeless crisis, Butler has turned into a bleeding-heart liberal — or at least that's how he's regarded by his Republican constituents and neighbors.

"Nobody is happy," he says from behind a cluttered desk of papers and alligator skulls. "You think residents like me for being a homeless advocate? You think the homeless like me for closing their soup kitchen? There is no glory in homelessness issues."

Butler is on the frontlines of the debate. His real estate office sits next door to the Haven of Rest Mission, criticized by residents and city officials for attracting an unsavory crowd to the neighborhoods around the Park Boulevard location. In 2000, after a homeless man leaving the mission punched him outside his office, Butler erected a 6-foot wooden fence to separate his parking lot from the mission's. He's publicly called the mission "a bad neighbor." And yet Butler has also been a lone voice in Pinellas Park calling for programs to actively deal with mid-county's growing homeless population, instead of running them out of town.

"We didn't look at [the homelessness issue] until two years ago," he says. "We found as a city something was going on, but the only thing we knew was we had a mission and had all these problems."

So last year, Butler traveled with county and city officials to Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to see how those cities dealt with their homeless populations. One of the programs he witnessed will debut in Pinellas Park next month.

Paid for by the city and Pinellas County, a homeless outreach team consisting of a police officer and a social worker will begin patrolling the city's streets in March, connecting the homeless with social services, similar to St. Petersburg's Homeless Outreach Team.

"It's kind of a new concept for law enforcement to help with the homeless situation," says the soon-to-be outreach officer Stephen Vangeli. "And if a social worker is with us, instead of shooing them away we can offer them help."

As part of the program, Vangeli will wear a polo shirt and drive a toned-down police vehicle without flashing lights.

"Not everyone wants to get into a car because it reminds them of being arrested, so this helps," he says. "I have to build trust with them."

Butler says this is just the beginning of Pinellas Park's new commitment to the city's homeless. The City Council is expected to approve a $10,000 donation to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless in the coming months, along with an 80-unit affordable housing complex for the elderly.

"I think the tent city has brought this to the forefront of the media, but the reality is we've been working on these issues for a long time," he says. "Two years ago we never had this availability [of funds] as a city. Now we'll try prevention instead of reaction."

To Butler, these aren't solutions to an abstract problem — Pinellas Park's homeless are citizens, too. He looks out his back door to the parking lot. "Some of the people back there I went to school with."