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Police, park department move to clean up Pocahontas Park

Photo: Linda Hillman picks up trash around Pocahontas Park.

After a flurry of complaints, phoned in and posted on social media sites, about conditions in Pocahontas Park – homeless people camping out, aggressive beggars, drug use, trash and broken playground equipment – Vero Beach city officials have taken action on several fronts to clean up the popular downtown park.

The city’s recreation department sent crews to remove litter and leaves, and city police have increased patrols to prevent homeless people and other vagrants from sleeping on benches during the day, camping in the park at night, and leaving behind trash and human feces.

Police also have cracked down on public drunkenness, begging for money and harassment of park visitors, particularly mothers who take their young children to the playground.

“We’re keeping watch,” Vero Beach Police Capt. Kevin Martin said. “We’re doing more walk-throughs, so there’s an increased police presence in the park. And if we get a call, we go over there immediately.

“Not too long ago, we got a call that some guy was in the playground area begging for money,” he continued. “He approached one woman who ignored him, and he began yelling and cursing at her, so much so that she was afraid to leave.

“That’s not going to be tolerated,” he added. “We want parents and grandparents to be able to bring kids to the park, not be bothered and feel safe.”

Martin said police occasionally have received complaints from citizens claiming they witnessed people “shooting up” and doing drugs in the park, “but our officers haven’t seen much of that.”

Most of the complaints come from people using the playground area and those visiting and working at the Heritage Center to the immediate south.

The park has become a popular gathering place for homeless people – partly because of its location and amenities, partly because it is near several GoLine bus stops. GoLine buses provide free transportation to locations throughout Vero Beach.

“If you don’t have any place else to go, you can sit in downtown Vero Beach in the middle of everything, and you can sit in the shade,” Martin said. “That’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon, and there’s nothing to prevent people from sitting on the benches.

“If someone starts out sitting on the bench and falls asleep, the most we can do is wake them up, check them out to make sure they’re OK and warn them they can’t camp there.

“The park is a public place, and if they’re not harassing people or doing anything illegal, there’s not much we can do. Usually, though, just having officers walking through is enough to discourage bad behavior.”

Vero Beach Recreation Director Rob Slezak echoed Martin’s remarks, saying the city can’t remove people from a public park merely because they’re homeless or vagrants, or because of their appearance.

“Most of the folks aren’t causing trouble, even though they’re in a dire situation, but we do get a little bit of riff-raff over there,” Slezak said.

As for problems with left-behind trash and litter – bottles, cans and food containers discarded on the grass or in bushes – Slezak said city crews regularly conduct clean-ups.

Slezak said the playground slide is broken, but he’s already ordered the pieces needed to repair it. He expects the equipment to arrive within eight weeks.

Both Martin and Slezak said they receive similar complaints from people at city parks on the island – particularly Riverside, Jaycee and Humiston – but Martin said the problems were worse at Pocahontas Park.