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Date of Issue: December 22, 2005

Homeless find Island a 'free ride'

Many of Manatee County's homeless population often head to Anna Maria Island, particularly on weekends.

With free bus service to Manatee Public Beach from the mainland and the free Island Trolley, the Island becomes even more attractive to the homeless. Some local restaurants offer free coffee and other services to pedestrians, making those locations a hangout for the homeless.

And there's been a definite increase in homeless people on the Island, at least around Manatee Public Beach, according to Holmes Beach Police Lt. Dale Stephenson.

"The last few months, we've seen more homeless than in past years. They usually congregate around the public beach because that's where the bus comes. They use public transit and the trolley is free."

But in Holmes Beach, at least, it's the same four or five homeless people who have been showing up regularly, despite warnings from police that it's illegal to camp on the beach overnight.

Officers have found homeless people sleeping on benches, in trees, bushes and one homeless man recently broke into a vacant apartment just for a place to sleep.

That particular person, said Stephenson, keeps coming back to the Island, despite warnings.

For the most part, however, the homeless do what they're told, at least for the night they are caught, and there's no indication that crime has risen because of an increase in homeless people, he indicated.

In Anna Maria, Sgt. John Kenney of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office substation said he's not seen an increase in homeless people, but agreed they like to use the free trolley to move around.

"They like to ride up to the city pier and walk around. We try and keep tabs on them because we know who is supposed to be here," he said.

Although it's not a major problem, Kenney said he and his deputies occasionally find someone sleeping in Bayfront Park.

"We only get one or two of those a month. It's not a big deal, and we make sure they know not to do it again."

In fact, said Kenney, most of the homeless people who visit Anna Maria leave by nightfall. There just aren't a lot of social services available on the Island as there are in downtown Bradenton.

True, said Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale.

His city sees more homeless people than Anna Maria looking for a place to sleep because of the size of Coquina Beach, but he doesn't have a major concern.

"We get a few at this time of the year. It's cold up north and there are a lot of places at Coquina Beach to sleep," the chief said.

When officers find someone sleeping in a pavilion or a park bench, they try and take them to the Salvation Army in town where they can get help.

"There are more social services there than on the Island. We don't have very many homeless, but more in winter."

One homeless person, however, appears to have become "unhomeless" in Bradenton Beach.

Speciale said the man is very quiet and doesn't bother anyone, but he likes sleeping on the bench at city hall.

"He seems to be a regular," the chief said.

Surprisingly, Stephenson has had no recent complaints about panhandling. "The homeless we get aren't asking for money. They just seem to enjoy the Island. We're getting more and more of them, but we're not yet at any problem stage."

Salvation Army Maj. Jack Repass confirmed what Holmes Beach police have observed recently.

"We always get more homeless in winter, but I've been here four years and this is the most we've had in that time," he said. Cold weather up north means more people heading south, including the homeless, he observed.

"We are full every night, and not just the homeless are coming. We're getting working poor families who come for a good meal," he added.

Maj. Repass said his organization offers shelter for a night to the homeless, but with so many seeking a place to sleep lately, he has to direct some people elsewhere. No one, however, is denied a good meal.

He also noted that in addition to the Salvation Army, there are other services available in downtown Bradenton for food and lodging for homeless people.

Anyone in need of a good meal or shelter can go to the Salvation Army at 1204 14th St. W. in Bradenton, he said.