Tent City Homeless Told to Pack Up and Move

ST. PETERSBURG -

The makeshift village of pup tents was organized by homeless people about two weeks ago on 13th Street North.

What became known as 'Tent City' is on private land owned by the St. Vincent DePaul Society. On a visit to the camp earlier this week, tent city resident Sebastion Grimmage said the group took a neglected vacant lot littered with trash and turned it into a functioning community, where homeless could feel safe.

GRIMMAGE: We came in, we cleaned it up and we made a place for homeless people to come and stay and get out of the rain and away from the abuse by the police and pedestrians that's got the wrong idea about homeless people.

One of the misperceptions, homeless advocates say, is that drifters from around the country come to Florida during the winter because of its reputation as a warm hospitable place. While the homeless population does increase somewhat during the winter months, advocates say most of the street people in St. Petersburg are longtime residents.

Tent City resident Willie Harper is an example.

HARPER: I was born and raised here. I went to school with our newly elected Governor Charlie Crist, when I went to St. pete High School. So I graduated in '73, then I went the University of Florida for four years. I got a four-year degree in electrical engineering, came back to St. Pete and got a job with Florida Power. Worked for them for 12 years then I got hurt and then I had to get my disability so now I'm just here.

Harper is among the fortunate tent city dwellers who was able to find other shelter before today's deadline.

City officials listened yesterday while tent city dwellers and other city residents pleaded with the city council to extend today's deadline. Richard Carlson was among those who addressed the council.

CARLSON: Our request is simple: If you're not willing to help us, please leave us alone. Al we ask is that you let us stay, let us work, let us keep our community so that we can earn money, find places to live and help others in our situation.

After hearing from residents for several hours, the council declined a request to extend the deadline.

Mayor Rick Baker says social workers have spent the last two weeks helping homeless people at the tent city site offering vouchers for weekly motels and, for some, bus tickets out of town.

Baker says the city is already allocating plenty of resources to help the homeless and is willing to do more to solve the long term problem. But, he says a makeshift camp on a vacant lot is not the answer and, he says, the tents on the St. Vincent DePaul Society's property are not compliant with city codes and must be dismantled.

City Council Member James Bennett introduced a motion to extend the deadline for dismantling the camp. Bennett says the city could be doing much more to help the homeless population.

BENNETT: The sooner we can get to people and provide help, it could be simply a rent voucher for a month until they're back on their feet so they don't lose their abode. Trying to keep people from staying on the street too long because if they stay on the street too long they become chronic homeless.

Officials at St. Vincent DePaul say they have no choice but to comply with the city's orders.

As of this afternoon, the few remaining campers and their advocates are facing a standoff with city officials and some protesters say they will stay, risking arrest if necessary to preserve Tent City.

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