The lengthy discussion regarding Beach Drive at Gulfport City Council’s Nov. 15 meeting included a mention of an ongoing complaint throughout the city – a problem that has no easy answer.
An attorney representing one of the applicants seeking to have the right-of-way vacated in front of her home recounted a recent incident in which a homeless man camped in the area in question. Police were called and an extensive search found the man in another area, but not until after he had defecated in the backyard of the applicant’s home, according to the attorney.
Repeated comments at multiple city council meetings have referred to homeless encampments, mostly in the park area at the beach in downtown Gulfport. Local resident Karen Love has told council on more than one occasion about a man who interacted with her so aggressively that she felt her safety was threatened, and she has often reported about specific pavilions at the park that have essentially become homes for certain people who park there night after night.
“I don’t have the answer, but I don’t think it’s right for the residents to not really have access to our own pavilions anymore because this is where people are living full time,” Love said. “And if you haven’t been down there to see it with your own eyes, I would encourage you to do so.”
Chris Smith, who lives on Shore Boulevard across from the park, confirmed Love’s account about a recent storm forcing multiple people to move out of one pavilion that flooded and camp in another for a few days. When the water receded, they moved back to their original spot, he said.
“The cops do come through around midnight and move them along, but they’re back about 5 a.m.,” he said. “The residents do not have the opportunity to use the pavilions. People who are coming down to visit Gulfport and use the beach don’t have it. It has become very unsafe. It has become disgusting. We are watching people urinate, use the bathroom, poop in the garbage cans. It is a terrible sight.”
But what can legally be done by authorities in Gulfport regarding homeless people, and what cannot be done?
“We obviously have to work within the law. We cannot outlaw homelessness,” said Police Chief Robert Vincent. “Anything that a person must do in order to survive – sleep, go to the bathroom, eat – you cannot make it illegal to do just because a person is homeless. As long as there is an open place that is free and open to the public, then we can’t outlaw those activities.”
Vincent noted that some of the things homeless people find attractive about Gulfport are the same things everyone finds attractive, such as the free and open spaces that are readily available to the public every day.
“We don’t charge for parking. We don’t charge for people to use pavilions,” he said. “That makes it easy and attractive to homeless folks.”
The reason officers move would-be overnight campers out of the park at midnight, as Smith said, is because all of the city’s parks are closed to the public between midnight and 4 a.m.
“If they have a car, we have official signs posted that say you cannot park here overnight,” said Vincent. “If they are parked there overnight in those particular places, we can issue a parking citation. Those are kind of our limits right now.”
Other nuisance-related actions can lead to stiffer penalties, but Vincent said his department has not received any official complaints regarding public urination or defecation. In general, he added, the complaints that do come in are mostly on the nuisance level and almost never involve violence.
One well-known man among the local homeless population was arrested several years ago on arson charges after setting fire to the porch at the Gulfport Historical Museum. Vincent believes he was not prosecuted because he likely does not have the mental capacity to form intent to commit the crime.
“We have had a number of calls about him, yelling and making threatening comments to people, but he’s never acted on them and there has never been enough to charge him with anything,” the chief said. “He basically sits at the bus stop by the Casino. He believes that Miley Cyrus owes him millions of dollars for some reason, and he yells at everyone who walks by about Miley Cyrus.”
As reflected by this episode, Vincent said mental illness is often taken into consideration when officers interact with homeless people in the city.
“Mental illness is an issue. Substance abuse is an issue. Most of the people in Pinellas County who are homeless refuse to accept the alternatives,” said Vincent. “They don’t want to go to the shelter because the shelter will not let them drink or use their drugs or whatever the case may be. There are shelters operated by a church and they don’t want to go pray or be preached to.”
The initial approach by a Gulfport police officer in any situation with a homeless person is to offer a ride to a shelter. The answer is almost always no, Vincent said. But that is still the first option.
“It’s to help first, then enforcement next if they’re breaking the rules.”