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Developers, city officials discuss new homeless challenges

Mark Parker

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Williams Park is downtown St. Petersburg is known for its homeless population. Cities that do not enforce House Bill 1365, which outlaws public camping, face potential lawsuits. Photos by Mark Parker.

A seemingly increasing homeless population is affecting condominium sales in St. Petersburg. However, new state legislation banning public “camping” contradicts federal law, leaving the city vulnerable to lawsuits.

Those were two notable takeaways Tuesday afternoon at the Developer’s Council meeting. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s latest monthly event focused on the city’s efforts to assist homeless residents and the effects of House Bill 1365.

The recently signed law takes effect Oct. 1 and bans anyone with “personal belongings” from sleeping on an empty lot, sidewalks or a park bench. Amy Foster, neighborhood affairs administrator, called that a “really tight needle to thread” as people “have a constitutional right to take up space.”

“The law of the land right now, federally, is that you are able to arrest someone for sleeping, lying or reclining if there is shelter space available,” Foster explained. “The state law does not have that nuance. If there isn’t shelter space, homeless advocates are going to sue us.

“We’re going to get sued one way or another.”

A local developer building a condominium tower near Mirror Lake said the “number of vagrants” occupying the adjacent park has scared away potential buyers. Lt. Kenneth Miller of the St. Petersburg Police Department stressed that homelessness is not a crime, and many parks allow sleeping during daylight hours.

Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg.

While local officials await additional legal guidance, Miller believes the agency already complies with HB 1365 due to city ordinances. He said police issued 250 sleeping in public citations in 2023.

Foster said some people “actively try to bait us into lawsuits.” The litigation is typically expensive to resolve.

Foster previously served as CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas. She said the local unhoused population has remained steady, but developers are “knocking down where they used to hide. It’s more visible.”

Miller said St. Petersburg is fortunate to have the PATH (police assisting the homeless) program. The unit, formed in 2019, features six officers, a sergeant and a nurse, and works closely with social workers.

Miller said the goal is to build relationships with homeless residents and find them shelter. He noted the PATH unit is increasingly finding encampments in urban areas.

Three people created a makeshift shelter inside a metal drainage culvert behind the Goodwill on 34th Street. “We were able to relocate them and get all their stuff out,” Millers said.

Helen Rhymes, social services administrator, said St. Petersburg accounts for 40% of Pinellas County’s 2,144 homeless residents. She said that number was once over 50%.

However, the number of homeless seniors and families has increased. Foster said shelter space is often unavailable.

Helen Rhymes (left), a social services administrator, and Amy Foster, neighborhood affairs administrator. Foster also served as CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas.

The governor’s office stated that those sleeping in public will “instead be placed in temporary shelters monitored by law enforcement agencies.” HB 1365 allows residents, business owners or the attorney general to sue local governments for not following the law.

Foster noted that no area shelters will accept people with mobility issues due to fire safety risks. “This is a new problem,” she said. “We’re seeing this graying of the population, and we don’t have any shelter beds that are appropriate for that.”

Many seniors rely on social security or disability and cannot afford soaring housing costs. In addition, Rhymes said 100 families who currently sleep in “uninhabitable” places await a shelter opening.

“We don’t have the capacity in the community to house all the families,” she added. “I think our shelters, in general, run at about 90% capacity on any given day.”

Under HB 1365, local governments could create state-sanctioned camps with wraparound services away from businesses and residents if shelters are full. Foster noted St. Petersburg is “built-out” and “there’s just not a lot of places that would be appropriate” to build additional facilities.

Churches are exempt from the new legislation if helping the homeless is a deeply-held religious belief. Foster expects faith leaders to allow encampments on their land.

She also stressed the importance of keeping residents in their current homes. Foster said over 4,000 people applied for a new utility assistance program in four days.

“That tells you people are living kind of tenuously right now,” she added. “But the city can’t do it alone.”

Foster noted the need for nonprofit funding. Miller encouraged business owners with issues regarding homelessness to contact the PATH unit.

He also shared a link to the Pinellas County Resource guide highlighted in his presentation. For more information, visit the website here.

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    James

    April 7, 2024at11:58 am

    Oh well both mayors past and present [content moderated] have managed to turned Downtown St. Pete into
    St. Miami and St. NewYork .. Both have sold most of it’s true residents a fictitious dream of so called Affordable Housing development which is the furthest thing from the truth.
    Those who voted for both of these guys are part of the hamburger that they sold you and now the majority of those voters are nothing but the pickle in the middle of the sandwich ..

  2. Avatar

    Erik

    April 5, 2024at11:13 am

    Mike how do generalize all homeless people to be non voters and non taxpayers..you don’t know that ..

  3. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    March 31, 2024at7:27 pm

    The Governor needs to put some money behind that bill. He tossed the issue to local communities. State Law with no State assistance, is just not right.

  4. Avatar

    Marti Zeitz

    March 29, 2024at6:51 pm

    Homelessness is not a crime, nor should it be. Unhoused people are PEOPLE and deserve respect and dignity just like those who have money to be housed. What have we become as a country if we believe “they have no place in society”?

  5. Avatar

    John Strauss

    March 28, 2024at5:00 pm

    I see a little downtown San Francisco, Portland or Philadelphia developing here – not good.

  6. Avatar

    Linda

    March 28, 2024at9:18 am

    Not all, but for some, being homeless is a choice. This is history repeating itself over and over. In old England you had to have a permit to panhandle (that was in 1367).
    Maybe an old cruise boat turned into a church can home the homeless.
    https://historicengland.org.uk/content/docs/research/disability-in-time-and-place-pdf/

  7. Avatar

    Mike

    March 27, 2024at6:10 pm

    Criminalize homelessness and criminalize homeless advocacy. Homeless don’t vote and they don’t pay taxes. Advocates aid and abet and are enabling cultural, societal and personal destruction. They have no place in society and they should be prosecuted and persecuted for the damage they are encouraging and celebrating in our community.

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