On a sunny day, the lush green lawn at Williams Park in downtown St. Pete is scattered with people lying on the grass on tattered blankets with garbage bags full of clothes and other belongings propped under heads as pillows.
Last Saturday, the scene was different. Heavy rain and thunderstorms rolled through St. Pete most of the day sending the dozens and dozens of people taking up residence in Williams Park scattering to shelter in one of the many bus shelters.
There they tucked away the suitcases and bags that contain literally everything they own under overhangs and inside the shelters to avoid the rain. They huddled together in crowded spaces making room for each other as more showed up.
But that refuge is just about one month away from being gone, and it’s left homeless advocates wondering where the homeless of Williams Park will wind up next. The City of St. Pete and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority have partnered to eliminate Williams Park as the main downtown hub for buses. Sixteen routes circle that park. Come Valentine’s Day, the routes will shift to what PSTA describes as a grid system where stops will be scattered throughout downtown instead of concentrated in one spot.
That change means the bus shelters that have served as a reprieve from storms like Saturday’s for years will be torn down.
So, where will they go when there is no shelter from the rain? The city has no plan to move the homeless from Williams Park. They aren’t even anticipating a mass exodus from the park.
For years, the park has been a picture of homelessness with most of its daily users those who have no other place to call home. They’re men and women young and old. Most haven’t had a shower in days and are wearing dirty and worn clothes visibly marking them as St. Pete’s homeless. Some may not have eaten a decent meal in weeks. Some of them are addicts. Some suffer from mental illness. Others are just down on their luck.
Rich Linkiewicz is a homeless outreach officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department. For ten years he’s patrolled Williams Park and other places where the homeless congregate not looking for troublemakers, but instead doling out help where it’s needed.
Linkiewicz said he’s handed out thousands upon thousands of cards to people over the years and answers more than 30 calls a day from people who need help. He shuttles people to Pinellas Safe Harbor for a warm bed and a hot meal. He takes people ready to deal with substance abuse to a program called Turning Point where they can start the long road to recovery and self-sufficiency. Those who are severe addicts and at risk of withdrawal symptoms go to detox — if they want. Veterans are sent to appropriate outreach programs. Some are taken to St. Vincent DePaul or transitional housing if they have some income.
“I don’t see why it would change,” Linkiewicz said referring to concerns that the homeless in Williams Park won’t have a place to stay once the bus changes take effect. “People aren’t going to line up for help just because the bus shelters are gone.”
And he has a point. There are plenty of other places in the city where the homeless congregate. Mirror Lake just blocks away is a hotbed of transient individuals napping on the lake’s lawn. People can be seen rolling shopping carts up and down Fourth and Ninth Street. Fifth Avenue near St. Vincent DePaul is a giant gathering ground for the city’s homeless population. There, individuals spill over onto Fourth Avenue North and the park abutting the interstate. Mirror Lake doesn’t have bus shelters nor does the park near St. Vincent DePaul.
Sergeant Michael Bush heads the Downtown Deployment Team that serves as outreach for the homeless population. He said there were other places people can find shelter from the rain — overpasses, for example.
And even if the homeless population at Williams Park is displaced by the bus rerouting, Bush’s team of 13 officers will still find them wherever they are and offer the same services they’ve always offered.
As Bush, Linkiewicz and a social worker assigned to work with the team, Carlos Moore, stood by their vehicle, one man waited in the sun for a ride to Safe Harbor. Another woman was being treated by paramedics called by Bush to come to her aid. Once at the hospital, that woman would have access to a number of services.
Another man strolled up to the team and started singing.
“Me and my tree, whatcha know about me … I’m as happy as free under my tree,” the elderly African-American man serenaded in a Barry White sort of voice before lighting a cigarette.
Linkiewicz asked if he wanted to go to Turning Point, the rehab center for homeless people.
“Not today,” the man answered. “I’ve got money.”
That’s the answer officers most often get from people battling addictions. They’re not ready to kick the booze or the needle or whatever other drug is their vice of choice. The same answer comes from those who suffer from mental illness.
“See that woman over there,” Linkiewicz pointed.
A woman sat perched under a tree just feet from the street along Second Street North moving her belongings back and forth between bags. Linkiewicz explained that she definitely needs mental health treatment, but she won’t take it, and he can’t make her.
“She’s not breaking the law,” he said.
But he wishes he could help more. Linkiewicz said he’s seen people enter mental health programs, get on medicine and after a month or so they emerge totally different people. But they have to want the help.
Homeless outreach officers in St. Pete “place” about 130-150 homeless individuals per month in various housing situations and programs. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Pinellas County is home to an estimated 8,000-10,000 homeless people. And some of those people who take that ride to a bed for the night come right back.
That’s why Linkiewicz and Moore make hundreds of contacts each day hoping for the rare victories. When someone doesn’t come back, it’s often a good thing. Linkiewicz remembered a phone call he got while grocery shopping off duty years ago. It was from a man he had helped years before. The man got back on his feet after Linkiewicz helped him. He told Linkiewicz he was terminally ill with just about a month to live and wanted to thank him for helping him. Linkiewicz said he teared up in the middle of Winn Dixie, and he teared up a little even remembering the story.
“You have no idea just how rewarding that is,” he said.
What officers on the homeless outreach team don’t do, despite what some may argue, is criminalize homelessness. They aren’t forced to go to Safe Harbor against their will unless they’ve broken a law in which case they’re given an option between the shelter and jail. They don’t rat people out who have admitted to drug abuse or go rifling through their things in search of a charge.
“If I jam one person, if you don’t think that word is going to get out, this whole program is done. I cannot do that,” Linkiewicz said.
As the officers and social worker answered one final question, the man waiting in the sun on a cold Tuesday morning approached the white SUV. Linkiewicz helped the man with his backpack and into the car. As he made a move toward the front seat to take the man to Safe Harbor, the man thanked him, and Linkiewicz smiled.