BRADENTON -- There are new "Outdoor Living Rooms" at Bradenton's renovated Riverwalk -- but that term is not to be taken too literally, for the Bradenton Police Department will be monitoring the park to make sure no one, including the homeless, violates the city code prohibiting outdoor lodging.
"We are definitely going to enforce the camping ordinance to make sure that doesn't happen," said Bradenton Police Capt. Warren Merriman. "That area right now is going to be our priority. We want to make sure no one vandalizes it. It's a priority for us to ensure that everyone is safe."
The renovated Riverwalk spans about 1.5 miles along the Manatee River from the Green Bridge to Manatee Memorial Hospital. A grand opening for the new $6.2 million project is set for Thursday.
Riverwalk features a fishing pier, skate park, benches and green spaces along the
way for visitors to rest and take in the river view.
City code states that being asleep atop or covered by materials in a public or private place outdoors without the city's or property owner's permission may be a violation. But to support the perception of a violation, an officer must also verify one or more of the following: numerous personal items present, that the person is cooking, that the person has built or is maintaining a fire, that there is digging or earth-breaking activities, or that the person has no place to live, according to the code.
Bradenton's Downtown Development Authority's budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 allocates a total of $151,520 to pay for security downtown and along the Riverwalk.
"Public safety is definitely at the top of the list of our concerns," said David Gustafson, DDA executive director. "We want to take care of guests and residents. ... We thought it was an important use, and good use, of the public funds to make sure we have adequate security at the Riverwalk."
During the initial phases of the project, residents said they didn't feel safe or comfortable at the Riverwalk, Gustafson said, so adding the security is a way of addressing those concerns.
Two officers will routinely monitor the Riverwalk and when they're off duty, patrol officers will keep watch if they're not out on another call, Merriman said.
"Having the DDA add another officer, we are just going above and beyond to ensure the safety of visitors," he said.
An officer will approach people suspected of camping, ask them what they're doing and then ask them to leave, if necessary, Merriman said.
"When we have dedicated officers that work solely in that district, they get to know the transients in that area," Merriman said. And nine out 10 times, the homeless leave an area if they're asked to do so by a police officer, he added.
"Education is key to dealing with the homeless," Merriman said.
The officer will try to educate the homeless on housing options and refer the individual to a shelter or another location where they can get assistance.
"We don't treat them any differently than we would any other citizen just because they have issues, we try to get them help," Merriman said. "We don't hold any prejudice."
At the very last resort, a homeless person who refuses to cooperate will be arrested, he said.
"Since the Riverwalk has been developing, homeless people who were making their home under the bridge or by the river have found alternatives," said Adell Erozer, executive director of Community Coalition on Homelessness. She noted that the project area has been closed for at least a year.
"I don't think it will be a problem of them moving back in. People have found places to stay," Erozer said.
The Community Coalition on Homelessness provides basic services and information to the homeless.
Getting a definite count of people homeless in Manatee County is difficult to assess, according to Erozer.
"We have a large homeless population, but they're not necessarily living on the streets," she said.
Many of them, including at least 2,000 students in the Manatee County School District, live in cars, hotels or with friends or family.
"Homeless is a label, kind of a stigma, but some people are just one paycheck away," Erozer said. "They are the same as we are."
Anyone wanting to report a violation of the city's outdoors lodging code can call the police non-emergency number at 941-932-9300.
People seeking assistance for the homeless can also call the Community Coalition on Homelessness at 941-747-1509.