Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Another Sunday, another Bill Maxwell column about the homeless

Jesus, will someone please remove Bill Maxwell’s foot from his mouth?

The St. Petersburg Times columnist is back at it again this week with another tirade about the homeless. Well, I guess it’s less a “tirade” then a little piece of self-congratulatory nonsense.

For those of you that remember his last column (memory refresher here), Maxwell has his undies in a wad over the homeless folks in his neighborhood doing all sorts of nasty homeless things like giving mean looks and living out their cars. He was especially mad at the Salvation Army for allowing these bums anywhere near his neighbors, as if the Salvation Army could ring a bell and bring back its patrons.

Anywho, judging from the first few paragraphs of his new column, Maxwell got reamed by the city’s citizens for being such a heartless asshole. Nonetheless, Maxwell is taking some credit for getting the ball moving on some new changes at the Salvation Army:

Here are three specific changes that will begin on July 2: Individuals no longer will be permitted to take up residence outside the building; the 100 beds in the shelter will be available only those people who show need; and those who seek help must indicate that they want to be “more productive members of society.”

The latter change is a huge leap for the Salvation Army. It is known for aiding all comers. Some officials believe the time has come to stop enabling individuals who have no intention of improving their lives.

I find all that very interesting in light of a recent conversation I had with another Salvation Army neighbor. My source, who I have no reason to doubt, said he talked to Major George Patterson about these issues right after Maxwell’s column, and the Major mentioned that Maxwell had never approached the Salvation Army before writing that first article. Only after publishing the article did Maxwell set up a meeting with the Salvation Army director.

But for this latest column, Maxwell did talk to Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who — by all accounts — are the most sympathetic homeless advocates in the city. In fact, these two men thought that homeless people living in tents was so horrible and undignified, that they ordered the police and city workers to slash those tents!

But don’t be dissuaded, Maxwell says, those tent slashing days are over. We’re in the age of legal manuevers that just make it a crime to hang out on the streets if you have no where else to go.

Ironically, and maybe he was going for that, Maxwell makes reference to a recent federal lawsuit that accuses the city of trampling on the constitutional rights of the area’s homeless. Here’s part of the press release I received a few days ago:

Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), Florida Institutional Legal Services (FILS), and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday on behalf of a class of homeless plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of a number of ordinances and practices that target homeless individuals living in St. Petersburg.

Since early 2007, St. Petersburg has passed six ordinances that target homeless individuals, including four different ones that make it unlawful to sleep, lie down or recline outside at various locations throughout the city and prohibiting the use of temporary shelters. The other ordinances outlaw panhandling throughout most of downtown and prohibit the storage of personal belongings on public property.

“The City of St. Petersburg has essentially turned the issue of homelessness over to the criminal justice system. Subjecting homeless individuals to an endless cycle of arrest, incarceration and homelessness under these city ordinances and practices wastes valuable city and county resources and is ineffective in addressing the root causes of homelessness,” said Kirsten Clanton, a staff attorney at SLC.

I wrote about these ordinances here and here. The latter article is appropriately headlined, “Don’t sleep so close to me.” And really that’s what this is about. People who are uncomfortable about those on society’s fringes, and instead of dealing with the problem, human-to-human, they try to solve them through “sweeping” laws that invariably hurt those who least can afford it.

So, when the city of St. Petersburg spends $100,000 or $1 million defending against this lawsuit, and your precious little parks don’t get mowed or you have to pay more in parking fines, remember Bill Maxwell and the rest of the ‘burg who thought it easier to criminalize homelessness than tackle this difficult problem with some sort of tact and compassion. Not to mention, legality.

UPDATE #1: Peter Schorsch is reporting that, per one of his sources at the SPT, Maxwell may retire. We could only hope …

UPDATE #2: Some folks who actually have conversations with the homeless in their neighborhoods have recently written me (and the Times) with much more eloquent arguments against Maxwell’s article. Here they are after the jump:

From Dwight Lawton, a local activist:

Bill Maxwell may very well believe Mayor Baker and others in the city administration that “the bad old days of slashing the tents of the homeless and tossing their belongings are long gone,” but Baker’s consistent, unrelenting goal is still the displacement of the homeless and low income persons and the development of upscale properties. He is well-supported in this inhumane, displacement effort by the City Council, not-in-my-back-yard neighborhood associations, chamber of commerce, many real estate owners, and religious organizations and the executive director and commissioners of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

Neither Maxwell nor I have seen the details of the class-action lawsuit but Maxwell should reserve final judgment until the court hears the arguments.  Baker and the City Council passed these shameful ordinances for the sole purpose of sweeping the homeless from places where they were publicly visible. There were no documented health and safety problems.

I acknowledge that Hope, in part, has filled a critical need for housing but like Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army they are being selective as to which of the homeless and poor they will take. What happens to those who are mentally challenged and need special accommodations? Approximately 30 per cent are veterans.

In the Parade section of the same edition, “Helping End Homelessness” tells of a more compassionate model where the rate of homelessness decreased by 50 percent. They did this by convincing city officials to develop affordable housing for families and permanent supportive housing for drug addicts and the mentally disabled. Programs in other cities have shown that providing housing first saves money in the long run, when treating the chronically ill homeless people.

This will not happen here in St. Petersburg until more people get involved and let our government know we want them to invest in housing infrastructure and programs that give people meaningful opportunities to succeed.

Here’s another from Eric Rubin, a longtime homeless advocate:

Dear Mr. Maxwell,

I too have an issue with the “homeless problem” in St. Petersburg.  I live across the street from Lassing Park where many homeless people sleep in the bushes at night.  However I guess a problem is “in the eyes of the beholder”, for when I see these folks sleeping in the park, dodging the sprinklers, being bitten by mosquitoes and sand flies, and having their few possessions rained on and ruined, my assessment of the homeless problem is, “How can we as a community allow people to live in such deplorable conditions?”

So what do I do when I see homeless folks in the park? I talk to them.  Sometimes in the morning I offer them coffee, and sometimes in the evening I will offer them a beer or a glass of wine.  More often than not we sit on my front porch, as neighbors, as children of God, and share stories of our families and of hard times.  They often use my bathroom, as there are no public rest rooms available, and often then they move on with their daily chores.  Mr. Maxwell, you   would be surprised to know that many of these homeless people are no different than you, or me.. they have  families, dreams, and pain.   Sure there are some lowlife homeless people, but, hey I bet in private you would say that there are some lowlife people in your neighborhood…. or even at you workplace.

If you had read the lawsuit, ( which I have), it may have brought you back only fifty or so years in St. Petersburg to a time when what is being done to the homeless was being done to others.  You might remember that because “it was illegal”, if you went to certain parks, certain areas of town, certain water fountains.  The “laws” that were imposed by the mayor and city council then were deemed legal as well.

There were many white people who hid behind the “legality” of segregation and Jim Crow.  This did NOT make it right, and only through mass peaceful civil disobedience and litigation, did these laws get changed.

Bill, I believe, and I do believe that you believe, that we are all children of God, and yes that “we are our brothers’ keeper”.

I end with this quote “The city council incorporated such beliefs into laws, restricted African Americans to certain neighborhoods and forbade them from using many municipal facilities.” How easy it is to forget our past.  Mr. Maxwell, when the laws are wrong we have a moral obligation to God, to put his will above the law that oppresses others. It was true then, and Mr. Maxwell it is still true now.

In love and peace,

Reverend Eric Rubin

4 thoughts on “Another Sunday, another Bill Maxwell column about the homeless”

  1. Ben says:

    Your head is so far up your ass that hemmorhoids are getting scratched by the hairs around your nipples. The people defecating on the right of way on the side of the Salvation Army, sleeping in cars and shrubs around the facility and camping in the mangroves around Salt Creek are a problem.

    The Salcation Army facility is a magnet for the problem and needs to break the codependency kick. When a cleaner use for that land would be a methadone clinic, you know something is wrong.

  2. Tom Tito says:

    I was happy to see Maxwell shed some light on a few of the problems caused by the Salvation Army. Give him credit from bringing long overdue action to help Salvation Army clients as well as those of us who live nearby. True compassion at work.
    If anything Maxwell was kind to Aunt Sally. His focus was on the health hazards of outdoor public bathrooms and the obnoxious behavior of many clients. He could have talked about drugs and violence surrounding the Salvation Army property. $5 crack cocaine followed homeless drug addicts brought to downtown St. Pete by the Salvation Army. The “nickle boys” supply cheap crack to homeless addicts and are looking to neighborhood kids for new customers.
    Most of the homeless are decent people hurt by the tough economy. They don’t deserve the dangers of sleeping outside next to criminals.
    Years ago the homeless joined residents in cleaning up this neighborhood. ASAP supported the neighborhood association by bringing their clients who wanted to give something back. Now we clean up trash scattered by Salvation Army clients. A campsite on Salt Creek near 4th Street generated a blanket of litter in the mangroves.
    How much compassion does it take to enable down and out men to sleep on the ground near hungry gators?

  3. Alex Pickett says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tom. I’m totally in agreement with your assessment of the drugs and violence aspect. I guess that’s my point: there are bigger problems there then the homeless. And Maxwell attacked the people giving mean looks versus the more serious criminal elements. That’s the issue in St. Pete. That’s the 2 cents I wanted to see.

    And Ben, maybe you need your head up your own ass so you can see your own heart.

  4. Spencer says:

    Soylent Green is People!!!!!!!!

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