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Six years ago, Tim Yearian, 67, left his truck-driving job; he and his wife sold their home up north, and they moved to Lakeland, where they knew friends. But two days after they arrived, he said his wife had the first of several strokes and then he was diagnosed with cancer.
He said he spent their life savings on their care and college tuition for their son; his wife passed away, and then he found himself homeless in 2019.
“The state won’t give you anything until you’ve spent your last dime,” said Yearian as he was waiting in line along an unpaved alleyway for Lighthouse Ministries to open its doors at 2 p.m. on Good Friday.
Yearian and others waiting in line, who did not want to be interviewed, said the city government is actively working to make them feel unwelcome in Munn Park, where some people experiencing homelessness spend their days.
“They’re doing everything they can to get rid of us – from the police to park workers,” Yearian said. “They’ve changed even the watering system to come on to get us out of the park at 4 a.m.”
Revitalizing Munn Park
Munn Park is the centerpiece of a downtown that has become more vibrant in recent years and city officials are working to enhance it, with talk of a welcome center, restrooms and various play activities for children and adults throughout the park.
But city officials, concerned residents, and board members of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority say plans for a revitalized Munn Park cannot move forward until the city genuinely confronts the longstanding issue of the homeless population loitering on park benches and the related issue of churches and residents continuing to donate meals to them each day in the park.
The LDDA board held a half-day retreat Thursday to discuss that and several other issues. Lakeland Police Lt. Joe Parker attended to voice his concerns.
“It’s not really a police issue to solve, it’s a community issue,” Parker told the board members. “The line from the old Kevin Costner movie … ‘If you build it, they will come.’ It’s known that Lakeland is a good place to come because we’ll take care of you. If we become the dumping ground for these people and we don’t have a good process for all of those involved, that’s where we have the problem. If we advertise that we have rules and if you don’t follow the rules, we won’t help you … We’re just trying to get everyone to take ownership.”
He expanded on those comments in a text to LkldNow, saying, “Dropped off with no resources, no sponsors, no way to get back home … wherever that may be. Dropped off with the promise that they will be taken care of in Lakeland.”
Julie Townsend, executive director of the LDDA, said she does not like to use the word homeless and said the issue is not a homeless one, but a behavior issue.
“How do we create a level of expectation of behaviors? Arresting people over and over again for their behaviors is not the answer,” Townsend said. “Homelessness is not a crime. How do we mitigate the bad behaviors? We can’t tell these groups that they can’t feed in Munn Park if we don’t provide an alternative location. They’re not going to stop and they’ll dare us to arrest them.”
Townsend said she has multiple photos that have been texted to her from business owners of piles of human waste they have found by their doors.
Talbot House Day Center
One solution to the Munn Park issue that is being discussed is for Talbot House Ministries to reopen its Day Center to provide a shady place to sit, charge cellphones and have a meal. Talbot House is a local nonprofit organization that helps to house, feed, treat and provide job assistance to the homeless.
“They need a place to go during the day. Right now Munn Park is the de facto day center,” Townsend said, adding that “It’s unregulated, it’s unsupervised. It’s walking distance to Talbot House.”
She said in speaking with those in the park, some have told her, “’We don’t care if you give us another place to go, we’ll go. We just need a place to sit with shade.’ I think (Talbot House’s) biggest challenge is always funding and staffing, to be able to handle more people during the day.”
Talbot House Development Director Erin Martinez, 30, acknowledged that Talbot House is in talks with the city to reopen its Day Center, which was closed several years ago at its facility at North Kentucky Avenue and Parker Street, across from Yard on Mass.
“We’re trying to be good citizens and serve our homeless population that doesn’t have anywhere to stay during the day,” Martinez said. “We are putting together a proposal now.”
Martinez said Talbot House serves 160 overnight guests daily, with 70 staying with them as short-term residents — anywhere from six to 24 months. Those short-term residents work with case managers to try to mend their lives and are welcome to stay inside the center during the day. But the other 90 people have to leave each morning. Talbot House does not charge a fee.
Nearby Lighthouse Ministries charges about $200 a month to spend the night, but — again – the men who stay there have to leave each morning.
City Commissioner Mike Musick, who serves on the LDDA board, voiced his support for Talbot House to reopen a Day Center.
“We’ll look at our existing funding and see if there’s money to reallocate,” Musick said of the City Commission. He added that even though the city is working to refurbish Munn Park, this issue must be solved. “We can make it Bonnet Springs all we want there, but as long as there’s that population” people won’t come. He was referring to the newly opened private park off George Jenkins Boulevard that is attracting hundreds of visitors daily.
LDDA board member Eric Belvin, 62, is part owner of Linksters Tap Room across Kentucky Avenue from Munn Park and has operated that business for 15 years. He said the city and LDDA needs to alleviate Munn Park being the gathering place.
“Everybody deserves to eat – I’m all for hungry people eating,” he said, suggesting that the city utilize its Veterans Memorial Park by Lake Beulah to help the homeless.
“What if the city put together some funds and we put together some funds and made a little feeding center there, with restrooms,” Belvin said. “The city already owns it. You don’t have to buy anything.”
But Musick quickly shot that down, saying city officials would not want to impede on that park’s use.
Board member Donna DeStefano, a senior project manager for Summit Consulting, said the city should utilize services already in place.
“What it takes is to provide funding to organizations who already serve these folks,” DeStafano said. “Just give them some money, to Talbot Hosue, or whoever it is, rather than creating something. Let’s just give money to somebody who’s already doing it … Otherwise it’s just recreating the wheel and why would we want to do that?”
Musick said if the city provides some funding, checks and balances would be put into place to make sure the money is used appropriately,
“We just have to make sure those people are doing what they should be doing with that money,” he said.
Back in line behind Lighthouse Ministries, Yearian said he hopes the city works out something.
“Most of us are all old men. We live on Social Security,” Yearian said. “We don’t have any place to go.”
LPD’s Parker is hosting a meeting on the issue at 10 a.m. on April 24 at the Lakeland Police Department, 219 N. Massachusetts Ave.
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It’s about time…make it happen. These are people who just need a bit of help…
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