It’s around 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday, early summer. The sun’s shining down on Williams Park, in downtown St. Pete. People lie in the shaded areas of the grass on the park’s east side, their stuff next to them or under their head as a pillow. A cop car with no cop in it sits in the park’s southwest quadrant, next to an empty fountain with two city employees standing inside it, scrubbing it out. A man on the park’s south side pats down his pockets and shakes his head after being asked for some money by one of the people sitting along a portion of the knee-high wall that looks out at the bus shelters on first Avenue North.
“You use the busses a lot?” I ask a guy sitting on the grass.
“When it rains,” he says. His name is Nazir. He’s got a black and white beard, glasses and is sitting atop a piece of cardboard with various personal symbols drawn onto it with black marker. He heads for the covered bus shelters of Williams Park when the rains come, but doesn’t like how wet he gets now that half the Plexiglas that used to surround the shelters on three sides has been taken out.
A slender, waist-high tower of Nazir’s belongings, with a custom awning on top, made of shirts or sheets, shades his head and face as he speaks. After I tell him the city and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority are planning to get rid of all the Williams Park shelters by February 2016, he asks if they’re going to get rid of the grass too and outstretches his hand to feel it.
“No,” I say. “Just the shelters and most of the bus routes through here.”
“Why?” he asks.
“To clear out the vagrants.”
A big guy with a bald head, gray beard, sleeveless shirt, cutoff jean shorts and work boots stands up from the grass next to Nazir. His name is Eddie. He’s been staying at the park since getting into an argument with his parole officer and subsequently losing his apartment. He’s got a bag full of tools underneath his pile of belongings and works at a couple different churches, doing handyman work for donations. When offered a dollar, he declines and says he has his own money. He also says Williams Park, “might get rid of some of us park people,” by reducing bus stops and removing the shelters, but that the majority of the ones hanging out around the area come from the temporary living facilities that enclose the park.
“You’ve got the Randolph over there,” he says and points to the intersection at Second Avenue North and Fourth St. North. “And then you’ve got Williams Park Hotel right here,” he says and looks toward First Avenue North. “And then a few more over there,” he says and points toward a couple buildings along Third St. North. “It’s a thruway is what it is,” Eddie concludes of Williams Park.
The Randolph, located across the street from Saint Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral, near Williams Park’s northwest quadrant, offers rooms that start at only $130 for a week. And they accept cash. They do conduct background checks though all they require is for you not to have been convicted of a felony within the past four years. Currently, the facility is full.
Williams Park Hotel, on the other hand, requires no background check at all. And they offer rooms on a nightly basis, which start at $40 per night, as well as rooms on a weekly basis, which start at $170 for the week. All you need is an ID and some cash.
“She lives there,” Eddie says of a woman who approaches and offers oatmeal cookies out of an opened box before having a seat on the grass next to Nazir.