On Friday, January 19th, St. Petersburg, Florida officials raided a community of homeless people who had taken up residence in tents under the I-375 overpass. Ostensibly this was due to concerns about fire code and health and safety violations: people smoking and cooking inside their tents, tents located too close to the street, and the lack of permits. To remedy this situation police and fire officials showed up with scissors, knives, and box cutters and slashed the tents to the ground, in some cases with the inhabitants still inside. The whole operation took less than ten minutes. Watch the graphic video below:
This, however, was not the first time that the homeless made the local news during the past week. St. Pete is still reeling from bad publicity over two homeless men who were recently shot and killed in broad daylight in two separate incidents, just 30 minutes apart, two days prior to the raid. The murders shot fear through St. Petersburg‘s homeless population, whose members subsequently fought to establish a tent city as a safety measure. Now they have been robbed of even that modicum of safety.
Mention the word homeless in this country and most likely the stereotypical image of a drunken bum, passed out at the curb, will come to mind. Most people would be shocked to find that many homeless people are just like you and me, men and women have led full lives and contributed to society during their lives. St. Pete’s most recent homeless victims, David Heath and Jeff Shultz, were no different. Heath, 53, was once a bat boy for the New York Mets, fathered three children and loved watching movies with his son. Shultz, 43, loved the ocean, fixed boat engines and had just returned to the city after visiting his family in North Fort Myers during Christmas. Both are believed to have been targeted because of the large amounts of cash they may have been carrying. If this sounds like a contradiction – homeless people carrying large amounts of cash – consider that they have no permanent address and find it all but impossible to open a bank account, especially since the new anti-terrorism measures went into effect.
I live in Sarasota, Florida, which has its share of homeless (if I was homeless, I sure wouldn’t be living in Detroit in the winter). Most of them congregate in and around the downtown, near the restaurants and caterers where they can get an occasional free meal and the Salvation Army where they can sleep for $7 a night. I occasionally I strike up conversations with them. This past December, as I walked from my house to downtown, I spoke with two obviously homeless people: a young man who identified himself as Lorenzo and a young woman named Skittle. Just as I happened upon them, Lorenzo was reaching up to rip the Christmas lights down from a city lamppost he was passing. At the last second he caught sight of me and stopped.
“That’s not cool, man. Why would you want to do something like that?”
“I ain’t gots nothin’ so nobody else should have nothin’. I’m gonna destroy all this stuff that the rich folks got,” he said.
The three of us walked several blocks together and I continued to ask questions, trying to better understand the plight of the homeless. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Lorenzo was a user – too lazy to work, quick to blame everyone else for the fact that he has nothing, and milking the system for whatever he can get.
Skittle, on the other hand, fell into a different category. I asked her what we could do to help the homeless. “Get rid of money because money is the root of all evil.” When pressed she had some vague ideas about everyone living in communes where no one would have to work very hard. Skittle was high as a kite and clearly mentally unstable. We parted ways at the Library, where they would spend most of their day.
My destination was also the library but for another reason. I was there to take photos of the life-size clown statues that had been placed all over the downtown, with the bulk of them standing in and around the library and Five Points Park. In the park the clown statuary alternated with benches that were occupied by more homeless. I struck up yet another conversation with a 49 year old man named Rick who was sitting on one of the benches, enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
Rick fell into yet another category of homeless, that of truly unfortunate people who are just down on their luck. At one time he had owned a home where he lived with his two children. Then the City of Sarasota decided to widen the street in front of his house. He came home from work one day to find his house yellow-taped, with a notice that his septic field was condemned and would have to be fixed before the house could be inhabited. According to Rick, the heavy equipment used to widen the street had rolled over the front lawns of all the houses on the street, damaging everyone’s septic fields. He filed a complaint with the City, demanding that they repair the damages but the City refused, giving him a deadline for making repairs and dinging him with a fine for every day past the deadline that the problem was not repaired. Rick sued the City, taking them to Small Claims Court and representing himself. If you know anything about politics or the law you know that no judge is going to rule against the municipality they represent, so Rick did not prevail. In the end, with more than $60,000 in fines mounted up, he lost his house and was forced to give his children up to foster care and go live on the streets. One day he was hopeless; the next he was homeless.
These days, Rick tries to pick up day labor jobs whenever he can. If he is successful he can’t sleep at the Salvation Army that night because they lock the doors before the day laborers return from their jobs. And if he does sleep at the Salvation Army he has no chance to get day labor because he must be standing in line at 4:30 AM, two hours earlier than the Salvation Army unlocks their doors each morning to let the homeless out onto the streets. So Rick spends his nights at the homes of various friends, never staying more than a couple of days in any one place, trying not to wear out his welcome. On the day I met him Rick had walked three hours from Siesta Key to downtown to get a hot meal and would have to reverse the process that evening.
A while back Rick started seeing a woman and tried to put his life back together. He decided to open a bank account and try to save enough money to rent an apartment and get his kids back. “I didn’t want to borrow money,” he said. “I just wanted to put money IN the bank, and they wouldn’t even talk to me.” He’s made other attempts as well, “I applied for a job at Whole Foods Market right here downtown but I couldn’t give them an address or phone number either, so no go.” He readily admits that he has a drinking problem but would really like to try to get back on his feet; he just hasn’t found a way.
Frankly, I am appalled. I realize that we probably can’t help every homeless person. Some are mentally ill and beyond help. Others are just slackers and troublemakers. But a large portion of them are people who could be helped. Why couldn’t we put together a program that would provide a post office box and a prepaid cell phone for those who want to work and set up a pilot program with a willing financial institution that would allow these individuals to open up savings accounts? Once they have an address and a phone number, they’d have a better chance to get jobs. And once they have paying jobs they’d again be contributing members of society. After all, they’re not dogs, they’re human beings, just like you and I. We have an obligation to help our fellow human beings if at all possible, to try to keep hopelessness from becoming homelessness.