PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. - A few months ago, an empty building at 250 Mirror Lake Drive North in St. Petersburg offered a local attorney his dream expansion, and the opportunity to participate in downtown's revitalization.
Then, Matt Weidner found out what sort of $3,300 revitalization he'd gotten himself into.
"Human waste, human feces, it's been all over the property," he said. "Every time I clean it up, the next morning, it's back there again."
Most days, people line Mirror Lake Drive for the "Chicken Man," whose real name is Don McClendon. His non-profit, We Feed The Hungry, serves free meals beside the park.
McClendon points to demand for his help, crowds of low-income or homeless people who are hungry.
City leaders, however, see him as one reason the area continues to attract transient people with mental health issues and drug addiction, bringing with them an assortment of other related issues.
"There's people who really just don't care. It makes it look bad for people who do try to pick up," explained Ryan Andronis.
Andronis sleeps behind buildings that circle Mirror Lake. He believes most people like him choose the lifestyle and choose not to seek services at the multimillion dollar shelter built beside the Pinellas County jail.
County leaders created Pinellas Safe Harbor, the county's largest homeless shelter, as an alternative to jail for minor repeat offenses, like public urination, open containers, or trespassing.
It costs $12 per day to house someone, compared to $125 at the jail, and offers support services like social workers and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Leaders hoped Safe Harbor would address the issue of chronic homelessness .
"Take care of it. Not just deal with it, but actually fix it," explained St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
Soon after it opened, however, Safe Harbor unexpectedly perpetuated a problem it sought to address, as people began loitering around it and business owners complained.
Some offenders even learned to "game" the system, according to Foster, demanding incarceration instead of going to Safe Harbor because jail officials gave them bus tickets to go somewhere else.
Often, they'd end up where they came from, back at places like Mirror Lake Park.
"When people are choosing jail, you know you've got a problem," Mayor Foster said. "I want the city and the county to be a little less welcoming. If you choose this as a lifestyle for chronic homelessness, we're not the place."
Mayor Foster continues to meet with county leaders to find a solution, including the Pinellas County Sheriff, St. Petersburg Police Chief, public defender, and state attorney. He believes they have one, but would not give many details about what the plan entails.
"Everybody is on board now to make sure that door is not revolving, but that if people go to jail, there's a real consequence," he said.
Mayor Foster expects the changes to be implemented in June, and for Weidner, those changes can't come soon enough.
"We can't have people breaking into properties. We can't have the police called out to these things all the time. Something's got to change," he said.
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