VERO BEACH, Fla. — A downtown Vero Beach park that critics called a "tarnished jewel" due to problems with the area's homeless population is in the first step of its recovery. The turnaround is being fueled in part by some of the homeless themselves.
Located just a block from Vero Beach's central business district, Pocahontas Park can be a busy place.
But Mayor John Cotugno said many residents and business owners have had concerns about this green space.
"They didn't feel it was their park anymore," Cotugno said.
There have been longstanding complaints about the homeless panhandling or accosting visitors. The situation had gotten so bad that at one point the city council decided to remove all the concrete benches on the outside of the park.
Cotugno said a conversation with Piper Aircraft got them onboard as a sponsor to revitalize the park as part of a downtown makeover.
The Source, a local ministry that provides opportunities for their homeless clients, then came forward with a new program. It's called "Community Works."
Three times a week, members from The Source are paid by The Source to clean the park and other places that may need beautifying.
"We told them, 'Here's an opportunity to showcase that you want to work, that you want to do what's best for your community,'" Jonathan Orozco, The Source development director, said.
"This is a good way to give back what's been given to me," Ronald Rupchis, a Source member who was power washing the park benches Wednesday.
They hope that word will spread that there's an opportunity for those without shelter to rebuild their lives.
"Our members that are down here cleaning up have the ability to engage with those individuals on a regular basis," The Source Executive Director Anthony Zorbaugh.
The mayor is hopeful this public-private partnership will restore this gem.
"It's not going to cure the unhoused problem. It's beyond our job grade," Cotugno said. "But what we can do is make this park the people's park, the citizens' park, make them feel comfortable coming back here."