Dispatches from the Sunshine State

St. Petersburg Homeless Image street newspaper debuts

If you traveled downtown at all this weekend, you may have spotted folks hawking an unfamiliar newspaper.

The St. Petersburg Homeless Image —  a forum for advocates, homeless and formerly homeless people, students and the general public —  made its debut this weekend on the streets of St. Pete. The paper includes articles on the homeless lawsuit against the city, St. Pete’s designation as “Second Meanest City,” a blistering attack on the St. Petersburg Times for their recent article against panhandling and passionate obits on recent street people who died.

The paper is the brainchild of G.W. Rolle, a formerly homeless man who serves on the county’s Homeless Leadership Network. The project grew out of a need to provide accurate, passionate news and opinions to the people of St. Pete during an unusually hostile atmosphere toward the homeless. Plus, through a generous vendor program, the paper provides an economic opportunity to the city’s homeless. They can sell the paper for a profit and, besides getting some extra cash, learn valuable job skills. Rolle told me it’s a good alternative to panhandling.

The idea is nothing new. In 19 cities throughout the United States and Canada, “street newspapers” have proven effective in giving homeless people a “hand-up” instead of a “hand-out.” Street newspapers even have a national umbrella organization backing them.

If you pick up a copy — and you should — you’ll find a few articles written by myself and some homeless advocates across the county. The design and editing needs a little work, but the St. Petersburg Image is a good example of the kind of alternative journalism we need in St. Pete.

Behind the News

St. Pete panhandlers make it to USA Today!

USA Today mentioned our fair city this week in regards to (what else?!) homelessness!

We even make the lede:

In doorways of shops in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., one finds people sleeping and urinating amid piles of filthy blankets and empty bottles.

The article goes to talk about the predictable two-sides of the homeless issue with hum-drum quotes from national homeless advocates and upset business owners. Yawn.

The whole article is really not worth reading, except for a real interesting quote from St. Pete’s Deputy Mayor David Metz talking about the lawsuit over last year’s ordinances against sitting or lying on a sidewalk:

Deputy Mayor David Metz said St. Petersburg altered its laws because of an increase in complaints by businesses and residents about public drunkenness and public nuisances.

Pinellas County’s homeless population has increased 20% in the past two years, according to a homeless coalition. And while Metz acknowledges that there are not enough beds in shelters to accommodate all those who want them (the city says it has 2,200 people living on the streets) he said there’s no reason for them to move onto a sidewalk.

“We are blessed to have (34) public parks in downtown St. Pete, and there’s nothing to prevent any individuals from using those facilities,” Metz said.

Did Metz really just encourage homeless people to sleep in the parks?! Wait ’til the condo dwellers hear this!!!

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: