The End is Near … for panhandling in St. Pete

UPDATE (10:55 p.m.): After a marathon council session, the ordinance passes.

Tomorrow, the St. Petersburg City Council is expected to ban all street solicitations from city roads, including panhandlers, newspaper hawkers and charity volunteers carrying boots.

Frankly, I’m upset. Mostly because I had a really cool blog video I was going to do focusing on panhandlers and their really uninspired signs.

If you’re planning on going to the meeting at 6 p.m. and speaking, I’d suggest you read two things:

The first is an article I wrote about panhandling back in 2008 called “When Panhandler’s Attack.” Hopefully, you get my sarcasm.

The second is an e-mail I received from a friend, G.W. Rolle. He is formerly homeless and has an interesting perspective. He doesn’t like panhandling either, but instead of a simplistic solution, he decided to start a street newspaper. Like other street newspapers across North America, he wanted to convince the panhandling homeless to sell these papers instead of begging. This new ordinance could kill those plans.

Read his thoughts after the jump.

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St. Petersburg-based flilm Loren Cass released on DVD, Netflix

“Loren Cass,” that dark portrait of St. Petersburg in the late 90s, was finally released to DVD this week.

If you haven’t heard about “Loren Cass,” see my past articles here and here. Or, just check out what the L.A. Times had to say about the film.

Watching this film’s stature rise from a local independent movie shot by a 21-year-old native son to a national recognized film is a true success story. So, St. Pete residents should support the release by purchasing the DVD, or at least renting it.  Let’s try to make it one of the Local Favorites of St. Petersburg on Netflix!

City leaders destroy Central Avenue, now complain about it (REDUX)

Over the last week, Central Avenue has a hot topic with the St. Petersburg Times’ editorial encouraging artists to take over the 600 block. And once again, they mention the efforts of City Councilmember Leslie Curran. So, once again, I must remind folks how city councilmembers, including Ms. Curran, ruined that block to begin with. To take credit for any burgeoning artist scene now is, well, infuriating.

Please check out my rant on that here.

I hate to be a Negative Nelly — I’m glad something is happening as oppose to vacancies or, gasp, condos — but I can’t help but think how this all could have been avoided if city officials had any sense of — well, let’s just leave it at “any sense.” I also take great umbrage to Councilmember Curran newest quote to the Times:

Curran says the renaissance along the 600 block is similar to what happened years ago in Ybor City when artists went into empty storefronts long before developers took an interest in the area.

“My wish is that it (Crislip) becomes a viable art center that connects to the Beach Drive art scene, the Florida Craftsman Gallery, the Dome District and the Craftsman House in the Grand Central District,” said Curran. “Whatever we can do to get those folks out in the forefront and tie them together, that will be great for the city.”

Yes, Curran, and we all now how Ybor turned out …

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.

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!

or

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)

Track St. Petersburg crime in your neighborhood

Hey, congrats to the St. Petersburg Police Department for making it to the 21st century!

Next month, Chief Chuck Harmon will officially unveil the SPPD’s participation in CrimeReports.com, a crime map tracking service for us common folk. For the very crime-conscious neighborhoods of St. Pete, this is fairly exciting. CrimeReports.com allows you to search your neighborhood for crimes, provides e-mail alerts and maps all the sexual predators throughout the city.

Best of all for reporters like me, this site can easily track crime trends  in certain neighborhoods. Hey look! A homicide on the north side. I don’t remember hearing about that!

If you want to hear the official ra-ra over the site, Chief Harmon is leading a presentation at the Sunshine Center on Oct. 6 around 7 p.m.

News flash: Scarecrows don’t scare crackheads away

ross (2)I like Ross Pavio. I don’t know him personally, but dude has a great mustache. And he likes plants. I like plants. I have some basil, tomatoes and some random bean-looking plant in planters on my back porch. Ross has some hibiscus, bromeliad, Mexican sunflowers and other plants turning yellow and brown in his yard.

But Ross isn’t a bad gardener. He’s just not very neighborly.

Ross complained to the St. Petersburg Times last week because he feels some hoodlums are targeting his plants and home. Why would they mess with a guy sporting a mustache like Ross?

SCARECROWFrom the Times article:

At a house across the street from where Ross Pavio lives, a sign pinned to a scarecrow says, “No hookers or crack heads, please!”

Pavio, 56, said that’s the message he has been trying to get across in his North Kenwood neighborhood since moving in four years ago, but his efforts backfired.

In the past few months, Pavio said, a fire has been set in his back yard, a video camera above his garage tampered with, and his beloved plants and lawn ruined with chemicals. Last week, he called St. Petersburg police to his home on two consecutive days to investigate the vandalism.

Uh, yeah … Ross, let’s learn some Neighbor 101 up in here. Mr. Rogers never put up a scarecrow insulting the hookers and crackheads in the neighborhood. Not even in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Good reason, too: Hookers and crackheads don’t like being heckled.

Be clear: I’m not necessarily blaming Ross for some fucked up individuals trespassing into his yard. And really, his plants never insulted anybody. But Ross, you totally didn’t have to goad your neighborhood drug dealers. A nice call to the cops would have been sufficient.

But, Ross argues, he was really, really hoping this would turn out to be a good neighborhood:

Pavio, who said he doesn’t blame the police for his troubles, isn’t interested in joining any groups. After spending about $55,000 to renovate his two-bedroom, two-bath house and cultivate its barren yard, he has had enough.

“I came here with this wonderful idea that I was going to be coming into this up-and-coming neighborhood,” he said.

“I had great hope. I was not even worried about investing the money. I thought it was worth it.”

Finally, Ross (and similar residents) I have another St. Pete lesson for you: Don’t go into a neighborhood, looking to invest and thinking a scarecrow will make the ‘hood safer for you. As many longtime St. Pete residents have figured out, it takes a lot more hard work than that. Like, uh, joining “associations.”

Ross, this is for you:

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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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!!!

St. Petersburg OKs community gardens; related: benefit at Shuffleboard courts

It’s another great day — for community gardens — in St. Petersburg: The St. Pete City Council approved zoning for community gardens in the city, provided a few conditions are met. A great step for the city, environmentalists and especially those intrepid gardeners in Bartlett Park. (Of course, I prefer my community gardens to be guerrilla affairs, but that’s another blog post.)

So, to celebrate, the group behind the veggie liberation front (Green Florida) is holding a fundraiser at the Shuffleboard courts tonight. Catch all the info here.

(In case you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a link to the first article ever on the Bartlett Park community garden. Let’s just say I know a good thing when I see it.)

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)

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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Pinellas County, St. Petersburg curbside recycling update

Breaking news from Facebook!

According to Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who just returned from a BOCC meeting, all of Pinellas County should have curbside recycling by January 2010. That includes — yes, I know it’s hard to believe — St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg Housing Authority blocks requests to locate evicted Graham-Rogall residents

grahamrogallcomplexYou remember the evicted residents of the Graham-Rogall public housing complex, right?

No? Maybe that’s because the St. Petersburg Housing Authority wants you to forget.

Last year, the SPHA began evicting the (mostly) elderly residents to make way for a developer’s upscale condo project. At the time, SPHA officials said the Graham-Rogall apartments were too expensive to fix and the sale of the building would allow them to build more affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

Turns out, the property is now worth less than the $10 million originally proposed by the developer, KEGB, and the project may never get off the ground.

Nonetheless, the SPHA is moving ahead with relocating the residents of Graham-Rogall. Based on news reports, about 130 remain. Where are the displaced elderly and disabled going? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

So, the one group who has not forgotten about the Graham-Rogall residents —the Committee to Save Graham-Rogall — filed a public records request for the names and new addresses of the evicted persons. The SPHA gave them an incomplete list months ago and, to date, have not provided them with a full accounting. Now they plan to find a lawyer to enforce the request.

Interestingly, I filed a similar public records request for a public housing complex in Tampa. The Tampa Housing Authority complied. And, actually, I found most relocated residents very happy with their new digs.

So what is the St. Petersburg Housing Authority hiding?

Florida, St. Petersburg unveil stimulus websites

criststimulusBarack Obama’s most ardent Republican supporter, Florida’s Charlie Crist, finally released a website detailing where federal stimulus funds will go. Florida is not the first state,  nor the last. There’s isn’t much on the site now except for some photos, FAQ and various letters from the Guv. But once the federal funds pour in, this site could get real interesting. Check it out here.

Following his hometown governing friend, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announced a similar website for the city. Though there isn’t much information on there now about how much St. Pete will get, it does detail the grants available. Check it out here.

So how does this help you? Once you see where the funds are going, you can track where the jobs will be created.

Bartlett Park community garden spurs City Council into ‘garden zoning’

commgardenartIf you haven’t had a chance to drive by the Bartlett Park Community Garden in St. Pete, I’d urge you to stop and smell the cabbage. The year-long effort has already paid off with a bountiful harvest of vegetables and fruits, as well as promoting some goodwill and friendship in a tough neighborhood.

But beyond the food and fellowship, the Bartlett Park Community Garden is paving, er, clearing the way for other community gardens to follow in its footsteps.

When I wrote about the community garden last year, I mentioned that St. Petersburg land use codes prohibit a nonprofit from operating in a residential area. And though many cities offer exemptions for community gardens, St. Pete does not. Undeterred, the folks at Green Florida worked with the city to gain a temporary use permit for the site. But they also circulated a petition and reached out to elected officials to change the law.

Now that hard work is paying off. District 6 City Councilmember Karl Nurse recently directed city officials to draft new land use regulations that would permit community garden. So far, preliminary rules would require interested citizens to apply for a permit and have at least a majority of neighbors on board with the plan. This is a good example of — oh, I have to say it — grassroots activism. Ha! Although, I must admit, the rules seem a little bureaucratic to me.

Personally, I’ve always loved guerilla gardening.