Sleepout in Solidarity with St. Petersburg's Homeless -by Emily Reddy


On Friday night about 50 people gathered outside St. Petersburg's City Hall to protest the county's new ordinance against camping in public places. Thirty of those protestors slept the night on the sidewalk in front of the building as a sign of solidarity with the nearly 5,000 homeless in Pinellas county. This ordinance is actually an old ordinance that has been revivied and clarified, empowering law enforcement to arrest or site those sleeping on the grassy areas of city parks after the closing time of each park. Opponents say that the ordinance criminalizes homelessness and does nothing to actually reduce homelessness. WMNF's Emily Reddy was there and she filed this report.

Members of several homeless rights groups gathered on Good Friday to protest Pinellas county's ordinance against sleeping in the grassy areas of public places. The homeless would still be able to sleep on sidewalks, so the people in sleeping bags spread across the concrete outside city hall weren't technically breaking the law. Reverend Bruce Wright, Director of Refuge Ministries and organizer of this event, explained why the groups had gathered.

[Wright ... It was intended to do several things. One is to make a statement, that homelessness is not a crime. Two, we picked Good Friday because of its religious signifigance. It's a major holiday for 2 major religions. It's Passover for the Jewish community and it's the Cruxifiction of Christ for the Christian community. And both of those are symbolic in the sense that the Passover was all about the Jewish slaves being freed. And the Cruxifiction of course because Christ was homeless. Christ was oppressed. Christ was part of an oppressed class and culture. And we feel the homeless today in a very real sense are Cruxified by the ordinances.]

Matt Flege, a member of Eckerd College Homeless Outreach, says that Pinellas county isn't actually doing anything to try to address the problem of homelessness.

[Flege ... Unfortunately rather than providing adequate services or addressing homelessness at its root cause has tried instead to just push the problem out of the downtown area. It started a few years ago when they made it illegal to sleep in William's Park and now they're extending the boundaries of the park. Originally an ordinance was tried to be passed which would have made a blanket no camping ordinance on all of downtown area, however that issue was kind of scrapped.]

While Flege tried to talk to the crowd about why he and other Eckerd College students were there, Peg de Hew interrupted him. De Hew lives on the streets in a wheel chair. She was seriously injured in a hit and run auto accident 14 months ago.

[Flege ... Where are these people supposed to go? In our city right now...] [De Hew ... Here here, buddy. I'm tryin' to find somewhere, and I'm in a damn wheel chair.] [Flege ... I hear you...] [De Hew ... You better hear me loud and clear. There ain't nobody reached out to me in this damn town. I got hit on the city streets. Hit and run. Right down here. Nobody's reached out to me. So, please, watch what you say. I got nowhere to go.]

De Hew says that her anger was not directed at any of those present, but came from a fear of what the police might do to her now. De Hew chose not to spend the night in front of city hall.

[De Hew ... I think it's a wonderful thing. I know I was real angry, and it sounded real angry. I'm not angry at the people here. I think people are really trying to do something and this shows me that they are. The thing that's very frightening for me is that the homeless are afraid to be here, because there's a carload of cops right there and everybody's afraid they're going to go to jail. And I won't even stay here tonight. I mean, this lady from this school and this lady from this school and all these wonderful people will stay here and they'll be safe, but we don't think we are.]

De Hew says that police harass the homeless, waking them in the middle of the night to ask for IDs and to check for outstanding warrants.

Eric Rubin, state coordinator of the Florida Fair Trade Coalition, says that downtown development has contributed to the implimentation of ordinances against the homeless. [Rubin ... They put up condominiums, 2 million dollars. This law is passed because homelessness is not pretty for those who want to pay 2 million dollars for a condo. And, instead of dealing with the question, instead of recognizing that we could all be homeless, this city, again, does what it historically does in cities across the country. It criminalizes those who have created this country, who have worked in this country, who have built this country, and will continue to build this country, fight the wars of this country, and then be discarded by this country.]

Rev. Wright says that this ordinance is a part of the county's 10 year plan to end homelessness, adopted in response to a call for action to counties around the United States by President Bush. [

[Wright ... You know why there's a 10 year plan? Let's get real honest. The federal government said if the county doesn't have a 10 year plan, it's telling counties all over America "if you don't have a 10 year plan, your funding's going to be cut."]

But Reverend Wright says that the homeless being kicked off the streets are not being given anywhere else to stay. The city has told him that 25 new shelter beds have been added, but he says that's not enough.

[Wright ... It's a drop in the bucket. It's disingenuous. There's so much more that's gotta be involved in it. And they've gotta involve the people that are affected by it, they've gotta involve the people that are affected by it, and they're not.]

Reverend Wright is working with the National Law Center for Poverty and Homelessness on possible lawsuits should the ordinance be enforced. He also plans to continue to sleep on the streets with the homeless periodically to make sure they are not being harrassed.

With WMNF News, this is Emily Reddy.

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