St. Pete to enforce street sleeping ban listen07/23/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday | Listen to this entire show:
St. Petersburg is about to start enforcing an ordinance that makes it illegal to sleep in the streets if there are free beds in local homeless shelters. Not complying could mean a night in jail. Homeless advocates like Bruce Wright of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign are crying foul.
"I find it reprehensible and criminal that Mayor Foster, any of the counsel that would support him, and any law enforcement that would act upon it. To do such a thing."
Speaking at a rally outside St. Pete City Hall yesterday, Wright said those who don’t empathize with the homeless don’t realize how many people are on the brink of being forced out on the streets these days.
"Let's remember that the word homeless means homeless. They are no different than any of us. Most of us are one or two paychecks away from being homeless ourselves."
James Matthews, an electrician by trade, was one of these. But Matthews said something got him off the street after weeks of homelessness.
"I was homeless. I got homeless due to the economic crisis that's going on. I was an electrician and we became a dime-a-dozen not building anymore. And with all of the houses on the markets, they're not really building anymore houses. So, I kinda got left on the waste side and got homeless.
"Thank goodness I do art because after being homeless for about two months, it's just gotten to a place where I'm able to pursue my art. But not a lot of people have that ability or have the chance to do that."
Those who don’t have another option, he said, get stuck in a cycle. They have to stay chained to the few belongings they have, which makes it tough to obtain and keep a job.
Once the ordinance gets enforced, they can’t get caught sleeping outside if they don’t want to get thrown in jail – something that costs the county $126 a day per person. Wright said there aren’t nearly enough beds for the estimated 6,200 homeless in Pinellas County.
"It is clear from the Public Defender's opinion and office, as well as the sheriff's and the state's attorney, that they do not have room in Pinellas County Jails to put people in there for ordinance violations. Last time I checked, jails were for criminals, not ordinance violators, not people who are just trying to survive and be human."
Mayor Foster has said he plans to build another shelter, though he has so far been mum on specifics. Anthony, an EMT who didn’t give his last name, said crowded jails and shelters are breeding grounds for infectious disease. This, he said, could easily affect the population as a whole.
"He's going to be putting people who are sick in very close quarters, which is going to cause other people to become sick. And when they're released from the penal institutions, they're going to be spreading these diseases across to police officers, people that come in contact with me or you, regular people out on the street. It is a violation of human rights to do that and it poses a very great danger to the safety of the community, at least health wise."
He added that health care for the homeless is already in dismal shape.
"These people have to go through so much red tape just to get basic health services. They have to fill out forms. Many of the hospitals don't provide honest care to people. They just kinda look at them, only because the state law says they have to. And then they send them back out on the street to get more sick. So, I mean, Mayor Foster really has to take care of these people. If he's going to ask that people be removed from the street, put them to work. Make them build a shelter for themselves, and then turn over those jobs."
Chris Ernesto of St. Pete for Peace wore a shirt that read “Free Cuba.” He said that country as well as European nations like Switzerland have their priorities straight.
"They have zero homeless people in Switzerland. The minimum wage in Switzerland is $35,000. The reason they can do that is because instead of spending $700 billion a year bombing the hell out of innocent people around the world, they put that money into their own backyard."
Citing Mayor Foster’s avid public embrace of Christianity, Ernesto said the mayor’s faith should compel him to have a more compassionate policy toward those who don’t have shelter.
"I heard Mayor Foster proudly profess his Christianity. And the New Testament very strongly proclaims throughout that you love everybody. Rich or poor. You give everything off of your back so the next person can have. And I say that anybody who claim to be a Christian, and yet will take people off of the streets, who are just trying to make a dollar. Who will take people off of the streets who are just trying to sleep and throw them in jail. You are not a Christian, you are a heretic."
The city will reportedly start enforcing the ordinance August First. Wright and others are urging the public to call city hall and tell them to rethink the rule. The mayor’s office did not return a request for comment by air time.