Pocahontas Park must become homeless-free

Vero Beach City Hall [Photo: Kaila Jones]

What you’re about to read might seem cold-hearted and harsh, but there’s no nice way to put it:

If the Vero Beach City Council is serious about reviving Pocahontas Park as part of its efforts to revitalize the downtown area, the growing homeless presence there must be removed.

It’s that simple.

Local residents and visitors will not return to the once-vibrant park until they feel comfortable there, knowing they won’t be accosted by panhandlers or verbally assaulted by daytime drunks.

They need to know they can use the park’s restrooms without the uneasiness of being watched or otherwise bothered by vagrants who loiter in the building.

They need to know they can bring their young children and grandchildren to the park’s playground without worrying they’ll step on a drug needle, or broken glass, or human waste.

They need to know the park and its amenities are clean, safe and welcoming to law-abiding citizens of all ages, offering a downtown oasis where they can be alone with their thoughts or socialize with neighbors.

None of that happens, however, if the City Council continues to allow a growing homeless community to occupy the park, tolerates its increasingly aggressive behavior and, ultimately, lets the homeless dictate policy.

That’s why Mayor John Cotugno requested the council’s special-call meeting last week.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to solve the homeless problem in this community,” he said, “but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

For those who don’t know: This isn’t a new problem.

Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said his department has been responding to complaints about the homeless presence at Pocahontas Park for decades.

As the county’s population has grown, however, so has its homeless population, some of which has migrated into the city, where officials say transients have become more aggressive in their interactions with the public.

“We’re not really seeing any increase in violence,” Currey said. “In fact, our crime rate in the downtown area isn’t too bad. What we are seeing from the homeless population there is the accosting of people walking by, panhandling, public intoxication, making inappropriate comments, sleeping in public areas and trespassing at businesses after being warned.

“These people tend to gravitate into the park, but the park closes at 10 p.m. and we have a no-camping ordinance, so they can’t sleep there,” he added. “During the daytime hours, though, they have the same right to be in the park as anybody else, as long as they’re not doing anything illegal.”

Over the past year, the city has tried to discourage the homeless from congregating in the park.

First, the city removed benches in and around the park, including those near the Heritage Center, because the homeless were sleeping on them, making them unavailable for public use.

Then, when the vagrants migrated south to the heart of the downtown business district, the city removed those benches, too, taking away an amenity from the general public.

Currey said he believes the tactic has helped, but Vice Mayor Linda Moore, co-owner of The Kilted Mermaid craft beer and wine bar in downtown Vero, said she regularly hears from citizens who want the benches returned.

If the benches are returned, though, wouldn’t they again be hogged by the homeless, most of whom haven’t gone anywhere?

“How would bringing back the benches make it any different than it was before?”

Councilman Rey Neville said. “There would still be no place to sit, for the most part, because they’ll be occupied full time.”

Now, our city leaders are talking about removing or repurposing the Rotary Fountain – built in 2005 on park’s perimeter, at the northeast corner of 14th Avenue and 21st Street – because the downtown homeless have used it to bathe and launder their clothes.

Councilman John Carroll suggested the fountain be drained, filled with soil and converted into a planter until the city adopts a downtown master plan. The cost would be minimal, and we wouldn’t need to worry about seeing anyone bathe on a street corner.

But would that solve the problem?

What about a providing a constant police presence downtown with the goal of making at least some of the homeless park dwellers so uncomfortable that they’d seek other accommodations?

Currey has asked the City Council for the funding to add four new officers, one of which would be assigned on a full-time basis to patrol the downtown area, specifically along 14th Avenue and including Pocahontas Park.

If that’s not enough of an incentive, the council – working with Piper Aircraft, which has committed to becoming the lead sponsor of the city’s plan to revive the park – wants to install better lighting and, possibly, police-monitored surveillance cameras on the premises.

Council members also believe improved landscaping would not only provide park goers with better views of the downtown’s historic buildings, but it would also enhance visibility within the park, making it more difficult to hide illegal or inappropriate behavior.

They agree that the homeless situation in the park has become a public safety issue.

“It all comes down to: How do we make our citizens feel as if it’s their park again?”

Cotugno said. “There are certain perceptions of what the park has become, and having walked through there, I can understand those perceptions – because I’ve been accosted.”

Cotguno admitted the city contributed to the public’s negative perception of the park by neglecting the facility for too long. But with the council poised to develop a master plan for the revitalization of downtown Vero, he believes now is the time to act.

And he’s not alone.

Along with its new collaboration with Piper, the city plans to work with The Source, a local ministry that advocates for the poor and homeless in our community.

The Source already operates two “Dignity Buses,” which sleep a combined 36 people who pay $2 per night, and expects to open “Dignity Village” – a renovated 18-unit motel-like complex that will house up to 40 residents just south of Sebastian – this summer.

In addition, The Source’s executive director, Anthony Zorbaugh, told the City Council his organization plans to expand its program to provide opportunities for homeless clients to perform community service projects, starting on June 1.

The nonprofit would pay the workers to go downtown to pick up trash, pressure-wash sidewalks, and clean streets, alleyways and the park.

It’s a wonderful idea, one we all should applaud. To be sure, there’s plenty of help available in the Vero Beach area for homeless folks who want to rebuild their lives and are physically and mentally able to do so.

But not all of them do.

Of the estimated 300-plus homeless people in this county – as many as 200 are in the city – how many are willing to embrace this opportunity to get out of the park, get paid to work and get back to a productive life?

We’ll see.

My guess is, however, we’ll see many of the same faces in the park.

And until they’re gone, Pocahontas Park has no chance to become the “jewel of downtown” the City Council believes it can be.

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