St. Petersburg Police Slash Tents Of Homeless
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By STEPHEN THOMPSONand ROD CHALLENGER The Tampa Tribune
Published: Jan 20, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - A homeless man was lying down in his tent across the street from a soup kitchen Friday when two police officers yanked open the tent's flap and shouted, "Get up. Get out of there."
Then, the man said, the officers dragged him outside and slashed the tent's dome with knives.
"In the end the cop asked me, 'Are you all right?'" said the man, who gave only a first name of Mo. "I said, 'Is this a joke? Are you kidding me?'"
A cat-and-mouse game between the city and its burgeoning homeless population took on a confrontational tone Friday as about two dozen officers swooped down on 15th Street North and either confiscated or destroyed a dozen tents in which homeless people had been living.
A week ago, a tent city up the street that was home to about 150 people was dismantled peaceably. Some of the 150 received rent vouchers; other homeless people accepted mats at a homeless shelter; still others took gasoline money or bus fare to return to out-of-state relatives or friends.
But some were not interested in those options, or they didn't qualify for them. So, on Jan. 13, when they were ordered to leave the tent city on Fourth Avenue North, roughly two dozen people pulled up stakes and moved beneath nearby Interstate 375.
One favored location beneath the highway is across from the St. Vincent de Paul Society soup kitchen on 15th Street. That's where Mo was Friday. Another spot for the displaced tent dwellers was beside busy Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
Trouble was, both sites posed public safety hazards, St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon said. A half-dozen motorists complained they almost struck homeless people or their tents on Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
Some people also smoked inside the tents, or lit small fires on which to cook, Harmon said. The makeshift shelters were pitched so close together that if one had ignited, the others might have, too, the chief said.
On Thursday evening, the tent dwellers were told the tents violated safety codes and had to come down. But some of the tents, or different ones, were back up Friday.
"There were some folks who decided they were going to test us today," Harmon said. "We decided to go out and just take them down."
Half of the dozen remaining tents were confiscated; the others were slashed to render them unusable, Harmon said.
"The intent was not to arrest anyone," Harmon said. "The problems weren't the people. It was the tents. To me it didn't make a difference if they were the Boy Scouts of America."
Harmon said officers had legal authority to confiscate or destroy the tents because they are allowed to remove a hazard that lies on a right of way, which is city property.
The Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless who has served as a liaison between the city and the tent dwellers, said a deal was brokered in which the dwellers on Martin Luther King Jr. Street could move to 15th Street. Harmon said no such deal existed.
Anthony Diglia thought otherwise. He had just carried his possessions from Martin Luther King Jr. Street and set up his tent beside 15th Street when it was slashed.
"I have no tent no more," he said.