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Fiasco in Florida: No Housing, No Human Rights

On January 19, police and fire officials in St. Petersburg, Florida, dismantled a tent city inhabited by homeless people.

According to The Ledger and other media, officers reportedly destroyed many of the tents and the personal possessions left inside.

Facing litigation and public outrage at the manner in which the city acted, Mayor Rick Baker announced the availability of $150,000 to help homeless people and plans for a new shelter with 200 beds.

Outside City Hall, an advocate for the homeless said he was puzzled that no one who is homeless had a say in Baker’s plan.

“Homeless people are more than happy to sit down and share their experiences,” Eric Rubin said. “Aren’t they the best ones to know what will work?” ...

Darryl Rouson, the former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, represents the Rev. Bruce Wright and his Refuge Ministries, as well as several homeless people who had their belongings destroyed in the police raids.

On the same day that he attended Baker’s news conference, Rouson formally notified the city that it could face a lawsuit for civil rights violations that include destroying personal property without due process.

More than a week before the raid, Mayor Baker published an op-ed that speaks to his belief that poverty is a lifestyle:

The difficult balance is to satisfy our societal and moral obligation to help those in our community who are in need and who are willing to work toward independence, but not open the door to make us a magnet for people to come from other places, or for those who simply want our taxpayers to support a lifestyle that should not be tax-subsidized.

As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty points out, the “magnet theory” is a myth: 75% of homeless people remain in the city in which they became homeless. That said, perhaps more people would “choose” a different “lifestyle” if living wages and affordable housing were available to everyone.

A week before the raid, the St. Petersburg Times profiled some of the tent city’s residents, including a woman who escaped domestic abuse, a couple in their late-20s, a bi-polar woman on disability, and a former felon.

Watching Jessica Tennyson sweep out her tent, it’s hard to imagine she could lose anything. Slowly, meticulously, she slides the broom bristles across the lip of the dustpan. Back and forth, she strains to get every grain of sand, every sliver of grass.

But she did lose something: her Social Security disability check. Two months running the checks have failed to come, and now she says the government has put a freeze on her account until it can determine if the checks were stolen and cashed.

Want to be a part of the solution in St. Pete? Here are some organizations seeking your help:

Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless

St. Vincent de Paul

Catholic Charities

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