More than a hundred turn out to support homeless on Human Rights Day

12/13/10 Kate Bradshaw
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December 10 is known internationally as Human Rights Day. In St. Petersburg Friday, more than 100 people rallied in front of City Hall to urge those inside to rethink the way they treat the city’s homeless. Homeless advocates say it’s a matter of basic human rights.

"What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!"

At around 4 on a frigid Friday afternoon, the crowd, diverse in age and background, assembles at 4th Avenue and 14th Street North. They walk nine blocks east and regroup in front of City Hall. Cheri Honkala is national coordinator for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. She is one of several to deliver an impassioned plea on the steps.

"If we continue to let a country fund a war while we deny people the basic necessities of life at home, then damn it we're responsible!"

She repeatedly notes that one in ten houses is in foreclosure, and that there’s a foreclosure one every thirteen seconds in the US. With stats like that, Honkala could have spoken about homelessness anywhere in the country. But the former homeless mother deliberately chose to be in St. Petersburg on this day.

"St. Petersburg, Florida has been rated by the Coalition for the Homeless as the number 1 most hostile place in the country towards homeless people. You guys don't allow people to use the restroom at night, there's no warming centers, the amount of women that I've just seen during any of my visits here, I've never seen the amount of pregnant women actually sleeping out on the streets here. People sleeping on the streets without blankets, homeless veterans, people that don't have adequate blankets. It became very clear that this is where I needed to be on this day."

Reverend Bruce Wright, a homeless advocate with Refuge Ministries, says to deny housing is to deny a basic human right.

"In that Declaration, Article 24 and 25, guarantee the right for everyone to have adequate housing, food, and shelter as well as health care and a living wage job."

Wright has been a vocal critic of a shelter Pinellas and St. Petersburg officials are proposing in a jail annex building. A St. Petersburg city ordinance barring individuals from sleeping on the streets could mean a number of homeless people would have to choose between jail and the shelter. Wright says he advocates the housing first model.

"Would any of us want to live in a place where we have to check in with the Department of Corrections to get in there? Where we're fenced in? Where we're literally right next to a jail? What kind of psychological impact is that? None of us have to, when we go to our homes, check in with the police or be interrogated to come in. So, yeah, they have every right to complain because housing is a human right and most members of the homeless community work, anyway. We just don't have affordable housing here. That is the problem, it's a housing issue."

GW Rolle is the only representative for the homeless community in the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Network, which is a group of city and county leaders task with addressing homelessness. He says to require anyone to go anywhere is tantamount to incarceration.

"I don't care if this place is the Trump mansion. If you don't want to go there, and if they're giving you a choice to go to Trump mansion or go to jail, if you go to the Trump mansion, you're still incarcerated in there."

Reverend Bruce Wright says he thinks those who support the shelter do so not because they care about the homeless, but because they want to make it invisible.

"If they were concerned about the homelessness, they'd be working on the most vulnerable of the homeless, which are women with children and they are the single fastest growing population, but they'd rather concern themselves with the visible homeless."

Many of the rally’s attendees carry signs with messages like “Capitalism is Cannibalism” and “Homelessness is not a Crime.” Jerry Gay holds a sign that says “Homes for All.” He says he’s been homeless for about a month.

"They've taken all the jobs away, they've given them to all the foreigners, I have nothing against foreigners, but this is what our government has done to us. Our government has not just now turned their back on the American citizens, it's Native American citizens, they've been turning their backs on Native American citizens, years ago."

A woman identifying herself as Tanya came here from South Carolina with her boyfriend. She says they’ve been sleeping in the streets, and get the majority of their meals at nearby St. Vincent de Paul.

"It's a tough life, and it's crucial, and it's painful, very painful. And you cannot find any kind of jobs out there."

William Shumate is known around the homeless community as “Pops.” He’s managed to get into housing, but still advocates for those who haven’t. Shumate says he’s had a tough time getting city officials to listen to him.

"I've had fifteen appointments, I've still yet to see the mayor. I had to chase him down in the park to get to talk to him. I got three words out, 'Sir can I..' and the police escorted me off."

Shumate says he’s fed up with the way the city has been dealing with homelessness at a time when more and more people are on the brink of poverty.

"If the city would get off their duff and work for the people that are really the ones that count, the ones that fought for this country, the ones that have labored for this country, the one's that have problems mentally and physically, that they won't take care of. Not that they can't, but they won't."

Previous WMNF coverage of homelessness

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