Behind the News, Wanderlust

Feral cats invading Pinellas County (and my backyard)

I first met Frisky about three weeks ago. It was a short interaction. I came crashing through my back gate with a load of groceries; she ran as fast as her little legs could carry her.

Oh, a new cat, I thought. Maybe it’ll make friends with the other stray cat that haunted this side of Crescent Lake – a large, tenacious stray tabby with absolutely no fear. His torn ear and smashed in face gave the impression the cat had been hit by a car – or several.

But this new cat seemed less street-savvy. She was dark grey, striped with darker grey, with a large head plopped on a much smaller frame. Her ribs stuck out. She had obviously not eaten as well as the other strays.

So, I began leaving cans of cat food outside. Last year, in one of my more unusual interactions at Crescent Lake, I inherited about a dozen cans of Nine Lives cat food from an odd couple staying at the motel across the street.  These very distraught folks had lost their cat, Tiger, who turned up in my backyard. I know this because I came home one day to find an older, shabbily-dressed man climbing out from under my deck.

“Uh, who are you and what are you doing?”

“Oh, Tiger, Tiger, my cat, she’s escaped and under-”

Hi reply was broken by sobbing from his girlfriend standing behind me.

“Oh, please, PLEASE, HELP ME FIND TIGER!”

They left after I assured them I would capture the cat. Tiger must’ve thought they were as crazy as I did because he came out about five minutes later. I scooped him up and dropped him off at the couple’s hotel room. They were so happy I found Tiger that they gave me a dozen cans of cat food, for what use I don’t know. Perhaps to offer to Tiger when he showed up again.

I never saw Tiger, or the couple, again. But I did begin to see this new grey cat,  usually for just a few seconds at a time. Every other day, I left a can of food for her. I never saw her approach, but the can was always empty the next day. That cat was so skittish; in fact, I almost stopped leaving cans out, fearing I was giving the possums or raccoons a free meal.

Which is why it was so surprising when, one day, the cat suddenly came right up to me, purring, meowing loudly and trying to force its furry little body inside my house.

Immediately, I began to see a lot of her. She brushed up against my leg every time I stepped outside. She purred and tried to jump in my lap when I sat down. And she meowed. Constantly. For hours on end. When I went out to my car, she followed me meowing. When I stepped out on the porch, she followed my voice around the house and began another round of meowing. One night, when my friend Sal stopped by to chat on the porch, she meowed for over three hours straight.

It took me two days to figure out why. This cat was, well, feeling frisky (hence her name). She was in heat. Sure enough, over the next, Frisky presided over her own harem under my deck. I saw a lot more of the tough tabby, a fatter grey cat who only appeared on the weekends and a few other felines I’d never seen before, no doubt attracted from blocks around by Frisky’s incessant meowing.

“Great,” I groaned. Little baby Friskies all meowing on my back porch. I shuddered at the thought. Unfortunately, I was (and am) working constantly and there’s just no time to take her to the free spay clinic.

Coincidentally, feral and stray cats are in the news again.

According to a report by the St. Petersburg Times, there are an estimated 100,000 stray cats roaming Pinellas County. County officials have known about the problem for years, but this year they decided to create a focus group to study the issue.

From the article:

Tuesday, the group presented the results of the yearlong study at a special commission work session at the Pinellas County Courthouse. Commissioners agreed to take the group’s suggestions to promote spay and neuter education, support and expand the spay and neuter programs for low-income citizens at Pinellas County Animal Services, and share resources like the county’s Animobile with nonprofit animal groups.

Doesn’t it seem like this should have been done years ago? After a year-long study, you’d think they’d have some more, uh, innovative ideas. Well, at least they aren’t going to go around killing them all as the Clearwater Audubon Society suggested.

I’m happy to say Frisky is no longer in heat. But she is still hanging around, meowing and generally trying to adopt me as her owner. Unfortunately, I can’t have a cat. Too many reasons to list here. So, if anyone can help, please e-mail me.

She’s very loving, I can assure you.

Dispatches from the Sunshine State

St. Pete Second Meanest City in the Country (toward the homeless)

In a distinction our fair city probably doesn’t want, the National Coalition of the Homeless named St. Petersburg the second meanest city in the country toward homeless people.

No surprises here. As the 200-page report from the NCH says, St. Pete has passed numerous laws outlawing basic activities like sitting on the sidewalk and carrying a shopping cart full of stuff. I’m sure the recent lawsuit initiated by some local homeless didn’t help.

Here’s a snippet from the report:

Since early 2007, St. Petersburg has passed 6 new ordinances that target homeless people. These include ordinances that outlaw panhandling throughout most of downtown, prohibit the storage of personal belongings on public property, and make it unlawful to sleep outside at various locations. In January 2007, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender announced that he would no longer represent indigent people arrested for violating municipal ordinances to protest what he called excessive arrests of homeless individuals by the City of St. Petersburg. According to numbers compiled by the public defender’s office, the vast majority of people booked into the Pinellas County Jail on municipal ordinances were homeless individuals from St. Petersburg.

St. Pete joins three other Florida cities: Gainesville, Bradenton and Orlando. The fact we beat Orlando is amazing considering their ridiculous, mean-spirited campaign against bums. Man, we lose to The Mouse Trap every time.

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Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

City leaders destroy Central Avenue, now complain about it

600 central

Oh, how St. Petersburg’s city leaders love to ignore history.

I read with interest yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times article on the 600 block of Central Avenue. Basically, city leaders are scrambling over themselves about the sorry state this block is in.

A little memory refresher: This block is the one in downtown St. Pete that has all the vacancies and “No Loitering” spray-painted on the storefront glass. It’s become a haven for some downtown street people, graffiti taggers and hipsters in various states of inebriation after a visit to the Emerald.

So what’s our fair city to do? Well, they want to “revitalize” the block. But they don’t mention that back before 2006, this block was already thriving with unique local small businesses.

There were bohemian joints like the Surreal Bowl and eccentric boutique shops like Woodies Hat Box, all centered around one of the city’s historical treasures, Crislip Arcade.

That is, before another developer — Gerald R. Pacella of 601 Central Ave LLC — came in, bought that part of the block and evicted all the shops to construct a bunch of condos. Condos that never saw the light of day. Another developer, Thomas Gaffney of Oldsmar Land Holding Group, bought the property in 2008. His intentions are not yet known, but some Google sleuthing shows his company likes to hold on to property and then sell it to the highest bidder. He’s already mentioned to the Times that he has no plans to refurbish the storefronts.

While preservationists are calling for, well, preservation and some cultural leaders want, well, cultural space, City Councilmember Leslie Curran is lobbying for art galleries, because you know, she owns one. But she cares a lot about the arts, too, as evidenced by her push for the firing of former city’s cultural affairs manager Ann Wykell.

Oh, and this is the same Leslie Curran who voted for the previous developer’s condo wet dream back in 2006 along with the rest of the City Council at the time. Other city officials and downtown leaders backed that sale, too:

“It’s an evolutionary kind of thing,’’ said Don Shea, director of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. “The uses that evolved in that block in the last few years are not the highest and best.’’

Now, after selling part of Central Avenue’s soul to developers, city officials are once again throwing money at a problem they created:

Last week, the city began removing old benches and pruning trees on the street. In coming weeks, benches with bumps that deter sleeping will be added, along with better lighting. Sidewalks will be cleaned and parking spaces restriped.

This focus on the 600 block of Central is also part of the city’s efforts to “bridge” the different districts of downtown. Curran is leading a workshop this summer on that. Neighborhoods should tell Curran they don’t need any more of her “help,” lest the rest of St. Pete end up like 600 Central Avenue or, perhaps worse, Baywalk.

As for the problem of homeless and graffiti taggers? Just send them on over to the offices of 601 Central LLC and tell those developers to deal with the mess.

(Photo Credit: unprose/Flickr)

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:

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Hillsborough County residents to Catholic Charities’ tent city proposal: NIMBY!

STOP_tc_hcSpeaking of the homeless, some Hillsborough County residents crying NIMBY packed a county land use hearing earlier this week, trying to convince officials to deny a permit for a tent city much like Pinellas Hope.

Catholic Charities, the same group that set up Pinellas’ tent city, wants to put up a similar camp on 6410 E. Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road, on a piece of property they own. When neighbors found out about the proposal, they organized fiercely against it with images like the one to the right (OMG! Syringes!). One East Lake Park woman even created a little group: Stop Tent City. They even have T-shirts. Yes, T-shirts!

The residents do have some good points — Pinellas Hope isn’t located near a neighborhood and Catholic Charities is counting on tax dollars instead of their own wealth to bankroll the project — but the rest of the site is filled with a lot of misinformation on how much the homeless want to be homeless and how a large percentage are snowbirds. They also complain that the homeless would be so far from social services. But where were these people when the city of Tampa began harrassing the homeless downtown? Hillsborough County’s street people have been pushed from one side of the county to the other when some neighborhood complains about them. Now, in this recession, the number is growing rapidly and there just is not enough shelter space for them.

Of course, residents are just falling over themselves about the poor conditions inside the Pinellas tent cities and suggesting alternative plans for more dignified housing (as if a tent is worse than sleeping behind a dumpster). But what happens when the permit is denied? Does anyone honestly think any of these residents will be helping Catholic Charities implement another plan?

Maybe these Stop Tent City folks could get together with Bill Maxwell. He might like one of those shirts.

The Unemployed Life

I’m baaaaaaaack!

It’s been nearly two months since my last column ran in Creative Loafing and nothing makes me realize this fact more than missing an amazing cycle of news over the last two months.

A crime wave in St. Petersburg. Early political jockeying in the city’s mayoral race. More criminalizing of the homeless even as more mainstream Americans are closer to poverty than anytime in the last 20 years. Buddy Johnson’s election foibles and a land deal that might have federal implications. Oh, and nobody will forget McNutball for months to come.

On a more personal note, I missed the chance to publicly eulogize Richard Shireman, one-half of St. Petersburg’s Homeless Outreach Team, who died in a car accident on Jan. 9. Whenever anything regarding the homeless went down in Pinellas County, I called Shireman. He was a tireless advocate for a compassionate and common-sense approach to Pinellas County’s homeless problem.

But, as the About Me section of this blog will tell you, I can’t sit back and watch the world pass me by for long. So, I’m doing what millions of other 21st century humans do when they want to their small voice to be heard throughout the world: Start a blog.

“Will Report for Food: Tales of an unemployed journalist” is my newest writing venture, meant to bring some of the same news and commentary that I offered in the pages of Creative Loafing. But unlike the vast sea of navel-gazing blogs out there, I hope to offer readers original news reporting and compelling narratives about notable people, places and events in Tampa Bay. Well, maybe a little navel-gazing, too.

Feel free to comment on the blogs, e-mail me privately or pass along some juicy news tidbits. Mmmmm… juicy news tidbits. And visit here often. In return, I promise to never add those annoying drop-down banner ads the St. Petersburg Times‘ website uses. I fucking hate those.