Shirley Sullivan moved into a home overlooking Mirror Lake Park imagining evening walks around the idyllic lake on the western edge of downtown St. Petersburg.
She was not expecting the Chicken Man.
That’s the affectionate nickname given to Don McClendon, who, for roughly 14 years, has fed chicken dinners to the homeless four nights a week at the park. But the good deed has made the park a magnet for homeless people, along with drug dealing and debris — including human waste, neighbors say.
The park is so messy that a clean-up operation that Sullivan first organized in 2004 become an annual event, drawing as many as 100 volunteers.
“Shopping carts, mattresses — you wouldn’t’ believe what we’ve pulled out of that lake,” she said.
Today, the St. Petersburg City Council is expected to approve a $478,000 overhaul of the park, and city leaders are hoping the improvements will lure back residents turned off by crime and homelessness. The plan includes demolishing the sidewalk and adding a new 10-foot trail for walkers and bicyclists that will provide the first complete link around the entire park. There will also be more lighting, benches and landscaping.
“When improvements happen such as this, the park gets more use,” said City Architect Raul Quintana. “With greater use comes more eyes on the park. Those elements that tend to take advantage of parks that are poorly used do go away.”
Sullivan, though, and other neighbors are still somewhat skeptical that a facelift will be enough to deter homeless people from flocking to the park for a free meal.
“He feeds people from the truck; they throw the containers in the lake,” said Sullivan.
Local attorney Matt Weidner is planning to open new law offices in a building overlooking the park.
He had to spend more than $3,000 cleaning up human feces from the property.
“There are no bathrooms,” he said. “They made my property the bathroom.”
City officials have tried in past years to get McClendon to move his feeding operation to a church or homeless shelter where there are bathrooms, kitchens and trash bins, but with no success. Discussion about drafting an ordinance to ban what he was doing came to naught, said Mark Winn, assistant city attorney.
“The desire from the administration seemed to wane on that,” Winn said. “He was the only one doing that, so it was a limited problem.”
McClendon said his only concern is to help the needy.
“You have dogs that defecate in the park. Do they go round and pick that up with pooper-scoopers?” he said. “Some people have bathrooms, some don’t.”
Work on the park was originally intended to start in the summer but was delayed after the company that submitted the lowest bid withdrew its offer. Now, it is scheduled to start in November and should take only four months to complete.
Renovation of the park will dovetail with the rejuvenation of downtown St. Petersburg that is slowly spreading west from Beach Drive, City Council Chairman Karl Nurse said.
Weidner, the attorney, would like to see a restaurant and beer garden added to the park to make it a more Bohemian venue that would draw younger people. That is unlikely to happen while the park is thronged with homeless people, he said.
“It infuriates me every time I see it,” Weidner said. “With just a little bit of effort, it could be a marquee location. It’s a shining jewel.”