Tent Cities Raise Questions, Controversy

ST. PETERSBURG -

Nearly two weeks after the shootings, police are still searching for suspects but the deaths have shaken St. Petersburg's homeless community. 53 year old David Heath and 43-year-old Jeff Shultz were killed in alley a few blocks apart early in the morning of January 17th. Friends say both of the men stayed, for at least a few nights, at the tent city.

Part of the attraction of a tent camp is safety for the homeless who say violence against them is nothing new. Among the homeless of St. Petersburg, Kathy Hines is known as 'Mom.' Alone on the street, Hines says she felt very vulnerable.

HINES: Kids would drive by, they throw rotten eggs at you, they throw water on you, they steal left and right from you. At least here you've got a tent and all you gotta do is holler and you got everybody rushing to your aid. You sleep on the streets;' you're open to any kind of violence and everything. Especially for women. Women are really at risk.

Hines was evicted from her apartment when her roommate stole the rent money. She is trying to save enough money to rent another apartment. St. Petersburg City Council Member Jamie Bennett says there are thousands more people like Hines.

BENNETT: The population of homeless people has gone up by roughly 8 to 9 hundred a year for the last five years. We are approaching 5000 on any given day, regardless whether it's cold winter or hot summer. People are falling out of owning homes or having an apartment. Look at all the apartments that have closed down in this city and where do people go?

Homeless advocates agree that a lack of affordable housing is at the root of the problem. A new tenant must come up with two or three thousand dollars to cover first and last month's rent, plus a security deposit. Advocates say that's a nearly insurmountable hurdle for workers making minimum wage.

Drawing the public's attention to this dilemma was another reason homeless advocates erected the original tent city. But St. Petersburg officials said the camp violated city codes and shut it down. The homeless responded by setting up several smaller tent camps. The city shot back saying at least one of the camps was a fire hazard and that's when things got ugly.

SOUND TENT CITY

That's the sound of St. Petersburg Police and fire officials slashing the tents of homeless people. The video that accompanies that sound was shot by a local resident and has been seen by thousands of people around the world thanks to You Tube.

St. Petersburg has now become a focal point for national homeless advocates who are planning a press conference in the city within the next few weeks. For now, Council Member Bennett says the city and the homeless have reached, at least a temporary, truce.

Councilman Bennett is also Chairman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network. He says the group is working toward a more permanent solution: Brick and mortar shelters to house and help the homeless. The facilities would be funded by a combination of state and municipal funds and private donations.

But for some neighbors of the tent camps that solution couldn't come soon enough. Diane Haug says the tent camp near her house has ruined the neighborhood.

HAUG: Well, there's been a lot of vandalism in the area. There's been a lot of burglaries. We've got hookers walking up and down the street. We've got drug dealers that didn't used to be cruising this area. It's just been a mess. There's people urinating and defecating on lawns. I mean I know some of the people need help but I don't know about all of them. I think some of them are just taking advantage of the situation.

Haug says she recognizes the homeless have needs and rights, yet she says home owners have rights as well.

HAUG: You've got a lot of people restoring old houses. This is one of the probably last affordable neighborhoods in St. Petersburg where you can still buy a house for under a hundred grand and fix it up and make a home. All the hard work we're doing and what's gonna happen to our property values?

Councilman Bennett says he understands the concerns of residents living near the tent camps and says the camps are only a temporary fix.

BENNETT: That is absolutely not what we want. We don't want tent city. So that's why you have to have a more solid structure. Something with a roof and walls and transportation to and from where the advocates can work with them to get them back on their feet. Give 'em a step up.

The Homeless Network is planning to establish three facilities throughout the county where the homeless could receive food, clothing, medical and legal assistance and a chance to save money for more permanent housing. But, the opening date for any of those facilities is at least a year away. Other advocates are scouting for empty buildings which could provide more immediate relief, to move the homeless off the street and out of the tent cities.

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