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.

Florida’s extended (extended) unemployment benefits: The good, the bad, the ugly

First, the good news for my unemployed brothers and sisters:

Due to stagnant (and in some cases, rising) unemployment throughout the country, the Obama Administration approved another round of extended benefits for laid-off Americans earlier this month. Although there is confusion surrounding who will actually get these benefits, under the best case scenerio, unemployed Floridians will receive 20 more weeks of benefits to help you get through another four months of job searching.

Well, some of us will receive those benefits (about 250,000 according to the St. Petersburg Times). Which brings me to the bad news.

If you already exhausted your benefits before the bill was passed on Nov. 6, you probably aren’t eligible (although the state says you can apply).  Also, only those Floridians who will run out of all benefits between Nov. 6 and Dec. 27 qualify for the extra weeks.

There is a lot of confusion on who qualifies for the new extension and since the state unemployment office doesn’t make much sense explaining it, they’ve set up a webpage for you to check if you qualify (click on the button that says “Check your eligibility).

That fine print has some advocacy groups upset. The National Employment Law Center just released a study that found over a million American workers will be ineligible for benefits in January 2010. Federal workers have it worse; they estimate over three million of those workers will remain unemployed.

But things get uglier.

The state has already run out of the money to pay for benefits, partly due to the Florida Legislature’s inane idea to not accept federal stimulus money for unemployment insurance. So, as unemployment rises to record levels, there is another cloud on the horizon. Due to a clause in state law, businesses will be taxed extra for unemployment benefits next year. And by “extra,” I’m mean a tax hike approaching 120 percent, which I’m sure can’t be good for companies barely keeping afloat.

Talk about a vicious circle.

Did the St. Petersburg City Council destroy Baywalk?

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For the last two months, I’ve tried hard to avoid the debate over Baywalk’s public sidewalk. I did not ignore the subject because I hate free speech or love Baywalk, or any version of these two. No, I avoided it because the whole damn thing is a non-issue.

Like many “big stories” in this town — and come to think of it, across the country — this is another “us vs. them” argument that seems to make good soundbites and elicit a flood of Letters to the Editor. But, frankly, this idea that city councilmembers are fighting for “the soul of dowtown St. Petersburg” is complete rubbish. I have even more disdain for those business owners and editorial writers (see “They Put the Dagger into Baywalk” Tim Nickens) who cry wolf at the City Council’s recent decision not to privatize the Baywalk sidewalk.

By reading the St. Petersburg Times, I’m supposed to pick one of two arguments:

1) Baywalk is the Golden Boy (or Girl) of downtown St. Pete. Without it, our vision of a thriving downtown is dead. But poor, poor Baywalk is on life-support due to a bunch of unruly protesters who prevent decent hardworking Americans from shopping at Chico’s. We should allow the new owners of Baywalk to control their sidewalk. That’ll fix the recession!

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2) Hell no! We won’t go! Giving up a public sidewalk to the evil capitalists at Baywalk will destroy the fabric of democracy! Sure, we haven’t protested there in ages, but by golly, when George Bush’s henchmen overthrow Obama we need to be ready! Hell no! We won’t go! Hell no! We won’t …

Now you see why I’ve shut my ears and eyes to this nonsense?

But, alas, after reading a recent Times’ editorial, I’m compelled to respond. So let’s break this down so even Tim Nickens can understand it:

  • Baywalk is in trouble because we are in a recession. Baywalk isn’t the only Tampa Bay retailer experiencing hard times.
  • The few people who can afford to visit the movie theater or shop at Trade Secret may be more scared of the recent shootings than protesters. I’m not sure how privatizing the sidewalk will solve that. Maybe Mayor Rick Baker should spend his time looking into the crime problems in St. Pete instead of how to sell off public land.
  • These protesters never prevented anyone from seeing a movie or buying a hamburger. We’re not talking about throw-blood-on-your-fur-coat protesters or huge aborted fetus protesters. These are PEACE protesters with, you know, PEACE signs. Not to mention the fact that these protesters have not been there for several months anyway.

So if just one sidewalk is really not the issue, why are the new owners of Baywalk so adamant about controlling it? Two reasons …

The first one is simple: Why not? As business owners, they want to leave as little to chance as they can. If they have the chance to control more area in order to bring in customers, they’ll take it. Hell, I’m sure they’d ask to own all the sidewalks in St. Pete if they thought it would pass!

The second reason is a little more insidious:

While the city fights over the sidewalk, reporters and citizens are distracted from the real issue — the City Coucil giving nearly $700,000 of taxpayer money to a failing private enterprise in the midst of a recession.

Someone please tell me the difference between giving taxpayer money to Baywalk and using taxpayer money to build a new stadium for the Rays?

What’s more infuriating is the lack of historical context in this debate. Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on Baywalk over the years. And even before Baywalk, city leaders bulldozed six blocks and spent millions on the Bay Plaza boondoggle.

The Times’ Tim Nickens and others screaming about “the death of Baywalk” don’t seem to understand what has revitalized St. Petersburg over years. It certainly was not Baywalk. Sure, we should have a movie theater and some high-end shops downtown. But Ybor and Channelside have the same thing — and yet they aren’t attracting people from all sides of Tampa Bay, except for maybe bachelorette parties.

What made downtown St. Pete is the mixed-use projects that allow folks to live, work and play downtown; the charming restaurants and hip bars; the eclectic shops; the art galleries; the walkability; the waterfront; the major venues like State Theater and Jannus Landing, which recently closed. If we’re throwing around thousands of dollars, why not invest public money to open Jannus back up? I guarantee that venue has brought more people downtown than some cheesy mini-mall.

In short, screw Baywalk.

If the owners can’t make money because of a handful of protesters, then they deserve to go under. With that kind of attitude, they might as well give up now.

Just give us back our $700,000 before the door hits your ass.

(Photo courtesy of Vera Devera/Flickr)

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:

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Florida’s vanishing wetlands: A talk by two St. Pete Times reporters

Partly to give props where props are due, and partly so my readers won’t think I’m always dissing the St. Pete Times, I’d urge any enviros out there to hear investigative reporters Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite talk about Florida’s dwindling natural resources tomorrow.

The talk is called “Paving Paradise:Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss” and its based off a book of the same name. The two reporters are the author of that book.

Details on who/what/when/where after the jump.

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Why does St. Pete continue to disparage the homeless without working toward solutions?

3419380851_f0eba9e893_oI love the daily paper. In no other publication can you read one article full of facts, shedding light on some problem and then read a columnist in the next section completely unaware of said facts and making uneducated statements. I bring this up, because I just finished my Sunday edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

In the Metro section, one reporter details the results of the 2009 Pinellas County homeless count. The statistics are  not surprising:

There’s been a 20 percent jump in homeless folks over 2007’s count. Despite the best efforts of Pinellas Hope, the number of homeless without any kind of shelter is up nearly 83 percent. And children make up nearly a third of those without homes.

Then I hop on over to the Perspectives section for Bill Maxwell’s column. His headline?

“Homeless Disrupting Our Lives.”

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The Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation is back!

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The Florida Legislature is halfway through its annual session and, as the maxim goes, “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the (Florida) Legislature is in session.” (Thanks, Mark Twain!)

I would add “no man’s sanity is safe either.”

The main word this session is “deregulation.” From suspending impact fees to giving telephone and power companies carte blanche over our pocketbooks, Florida’s politicians are bending backwards to try and appease business interests in the hopes of turning around our desperate economic situation. At least that’s the party line; the real reason could be opportunism.

Luckily, several journalists are reporting on these important bills, including Howard Troxler for the St. Petersburg Times. WMNF’s Rob Lorei interviewed Troxler yesterday for his “Radioactivity” program and I highly recommend downloading the podcast (it’s not available yet, but keep looking). Even as reporters’ ranks dwindle, some good work is coming out of the state’s major papers on these topics.

But what I don’t hear a lot about are these little bills that may not affect all Floridians, but could make lives miserable for a certain few. These are bills filed by legislators who missed the boat on real reforms and instead throw out politically-charged manifestos intended to get them re-elected. Or in some cases, perhaps these politicians are just insane.

Last year, while working at Creative Loafing, I profiled a number of a bills that just defied logic. At the top of my list was the law banning Truck Nutz. In fact, I rated all the other pieces of ridiculous legislation with one to five “Truck Nutz.” The law requiring the right amount of TP in public restrooms earned two “Nutz,” while the saggy pants bill earned five.

This year’s list of bills does not look much better. So, I’m bringing back the “Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation.” There’s no Truck Nutz bill this session, so I’m going with another absurd proposed law: Rep. Darryl Rouson’s “bong tax.” I won’t go into the specifics here — I reported on this bill right before my lay-off — but basically Rep. Rouson wants to put a heavy tax on all the headshops in the state. So, every bill I outline here will be rated from one “bong hit” to five, with five representing the most stoned bills coming out this session.

For the next week, I’ll post a few outrageous bills each day. This is an important time for citizens; next week, many legislators will go home for Easter and put many of these bills on hold until they return. This is your chance to send letters and e-mails letting your representative and tell them you don’t appreciate their precious (and paid-for) time wasted on stupid legislation. Yes, laws like the bong tax might get us on the Daily Show, but they don’t solve our state’s problems.

(Photo courtesy of whizchickenonabun/Flickr)