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140Herald Tribune: Battle Lines Drawn Over Homeless in Sarasota Park

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  • Anthony Doe
    Nov 15 7:28 AM
      Web Site:  http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20091115/ARTICLE/911151086/2072/FEATURES&tc=email_newsletter

      Battle lines drawn over homeless in Sarasota park

      Published: Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
      Last Modified: Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 12:08 a.m.

      SARASOTA - Out-of-work security guard William Nobles, homeless for the second time, is explaining how a few people who are drunk can give all of the people at Five Points Park a bad rap.

      One bench down, a woman with a red face is stumbling away from a man she has been loudly arguing with, yelling that she is not drunk and everybody needs to stop meddling in her life.

      It is Friday night at Five Points, where a problem with homeless people who occasionally act out persists despite years of arrests, tougher city ordinances and community pushes to change it.

      A surge in the homeless population that started in 2008 has made Five Points busier and brought a flurry of recent efforts. A group of 100 downtown residents and merchants met this week to hear more ideas.

      Four of the five hotspots for arrests of the homeless downtown are within a few blocks of each other -- the bus station on Lemon Avenue, Whole Foods Market and Starbucks by Selby Library.

      Merchants in that area are complaining that they are still afraid to walk to their cars from their darkened stores at night. One shop owner said on her three-block walk to work one morning she was panhandled three times.

      They have invested their money and are trying to make it through the recession, somebody said, getting a big applause.

      "Folks, we are frustrated," Lt. Jeff Karr of the Sarasota Police told the crowd.

      To get a handle on the situation, surveillance cameras have been installed at the library and Five Points Park, and police have recently arrested more than a dozen homeless for littering.

      Karr has also suggested a program that would bar some homeless people from even walking on the sidewalk in the 1400 block of First Street between the bus station and Selby Library.

      The sidewalks in that area are privately owned. The city deeded them over to a developer as part of the deal that brought Whole Foods Market downtown.

      If the merchants there get together and designate a contact person, they could start issuing trespass warnings to keep people out, Karr suggested.

      Former City Commissioner Mary Anne Servian is pushing for the city to pursue federal grants that could pay for self-cleaning public toilets, which could be placed in different areas and give the homeless the option of using the bathroom away from Five Points.

      Servian was the closer at the homeless meeting hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Alliance on Thursday night.

      "The library has become an uncomfortable place for a lot of people," she said. "It's our problem. It's our city."

      Back at Five Points on Friday, Nobles, 45, says the reasons that the homeless frequent the area are obvious. A bus station is up the block. The Selby Library offers e-mail service and public restrooms. The Resurrection House is a few blocks away.

      The Salvation Army kitchen is a 10-block walk.

      "It's a nice little area where you can basically sit and relax and chill out," he says.

      The Food Not Bombs group from New College is due in a few minutes to serve their weekly meal to the homeless, and more than two dozen people are milling around, most of them quietly.

      Still yelling at her friends, the red-faced woman abruptly stands up and walks away. Then she turns around, circles back, and sits back down where she was before.