EDITORIAL

There are homeless people in St. Petersburg.

To be fair, there are homeless people in every city – some 744,000 nationwide per “the first national estimate in a decade,” according to a study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the homeless people in St. Petersburg have become much more visible than most homeless could ever hope to be: their pictures are even displayed on the St. Petersburg Times Web site.

The uncommon coverage of the homeless situation is in relation to St. Petersburg sporting its very own “tent city” in which many homeless “reside,” for lack of a better word. The tent city is on privately owned land, but the settlement violates city code. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has had the unfortunate decision of determining whether the homeless will be allowed to stay or forced to leave.

The problem with the homeless in St. Petersburg is similar to problems other cities are having with the homeless population. Despite the fact that social workers have been handing out housing vouchers worth $550, their recipients say no one will accept them. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, a not-for-profit group that owns the land on which tent city stands, says it intends to comply with city codes. The Times said Baker’s “final decision will rest largely on whether he believes social workers have had enough time to assist everyone who wanted help.”

One hopes St. Petersburg’s mayor is considering the appropriate factors when making a decision, but whether those factors will be intelligently evaluated is something quite different. After inquiring whether he and his fellow city council members could prevent a possible Baker decision to fine the St. Vincent de Paul Society for code violations, St. Petersburg City council member Bill Foster said, “I don’t want to be the welcome wagon for people who choose this as a lifestyle. But if we can’t do better, we need to leave them alone.”

No rational person would “choose” the “lifestyle” of homelessness. According to the HUD study, slightly more than 50 percent of homeless are living in shelters, and about 25 percent of the homeless population is chronically homeless due to mental health problems such as schizophrenia. Others are chronically unemployable and simply cannot afford housing. Florida is surpassed in its homeless population only by California and New York.

It is likely that if Baker agrees with the fallacious idea that homelessness is a “lifestyle,” he will boot the remaining homeless out of St. Petersburg’s tent city. But if he understands that much of the homeless problem in America is a mental hygiene and employability issue, he will hopefully realize, as his colleague said, that if he won’t help them, then he should leave them alone.

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