Violence against the homeless on the rise in Pinellas

12/29/08 Andrea Lypka
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The number of homeless people in Pinellas County is increasing and violence against these people is also on the rise. Florida ranks the first in the country for violence against homeless persons, according to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

A 60-year old Vietnam War veteran known as Pops sleeps by St. Petersburg City Hall with his son, Daniel. He has been living in the streets for four and a half years and prior to that he was an engineer. “I am a decorated veteran. I spent four years in combat. I came home and my own country can't help me? Something is wrong,” he says.

Pops says he doesn't blame society or institutions for his situation; instead he blames the bad economy. “How do I plan to change my life? I have an education, I should be teaching. I am hoping to get back in the engineering field. I am talking to my ex-boss, and he says that as long as my hip doesn't get fixed I can't work for him. I have been six times to the Bayfront [hospital] but they kicked me out because I don't have insurance,” he says.

On Dec. 21, he has read passages from the Old Testament and Gospel at the Homeless Person’s Memorial Service held at St. Peter’s Cathedral. After the event, Pops was heading back to the City Hall when a gang of nine adults attacked him and his son in a parking lot around 9 p.m., he says. The gang stole their bicycles and beat them up. They also called them names, broke his glasses and threatened to kill them, says Pops.

According to Pops the police arrived within 20 minutes and it took another 20 minutes for the paramedics to get to the scene. He filed a complaint at the police and he has the case number in his pocket. He went to the hospital with a minor concussion; loose tooth and broken nose. He also says that he and many of his friends have been often targeted by gangs.

The Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless helps to integrate homeless people into the community. The organization also monitors the situation of people living in the streets. Director of Development George Bolden says almost 5,200 homeless people lived in Pinellas County in 2007. That is a 10.5 percent increase since 2006. He says homelessness affects the whole community.

Bolden says that because of the lack of space in the shelters about 170 people sleep around the City Hall, at least 50 sleep in the hall of the Salvation Army and even more sleep on railroad tracks.

Florida ranks first in the country for violence against homeless persons, says Bolden. The Homeless Speakers Bureau brings attention to the violence against homeless people and encourages the community to end this violence. The Speakers Bureau's local coordinator is Gregory W. Rolle who himself has been homeless in Pinellas County for several years and now wants to change stereotypical perceptions of homeless people.

Rolle says many veterans, children, and elderly become homeless. Violence against these people is perpetuated mainly by high school, middle school and college students. The reason may be the education these children get from their families. Rolle also says that some organizations abuse their power and their resources. This ultimately harms people in the streets.

But Pops says he is confident that the city and the police will reduce violence against the homeless. “I have hope that Mayor Baker will change the laws ... I have hopes that all the violence will go away, that the police will someday will get active enough to stop it. It seems that they don't wish to do so at this point,” he says.

Since this attack, Pops has been continuously watching his back. He hopes the community is going to be more tolerant of people living in the streets. He wants to open a bicycle shop one day. Until then he fixes up bicycles in Crescent Lake Park and other places and he donates them to other homeless people so that they can find a job and keep in touch with their families.

The Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless (PCCH) is seeking volunteers to help count and survey homeless people on Jan. 26. This Point-In-Time count of the county's homeless population is conducted yearly to determine federal funding levels. To volunteer please contact the organization by visiting Pinellas Homeless.

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Alliance to End Homelessness

HUD – Homelessness

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