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U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist leads roundtable discussion on St. Petersburg gun violence

For more than an hour, politicians, community leaders, and program directors spoke candidly about the violence and loss of human life taking its toll on the region.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Congressman Charlie Crist sat down with more than a dozen community leaders on Tuesday, struggling to find solutions to a wave of violence that’s gripped South St. Petersburg over this past year.

“This is crazy. This got to stop,” said Rev. Watson Haynes, a community activist.

For more than an hour, politicians, community leaders, and program directors spoke candidly about the violence and loss of human life taking its toll on South St. Pete.

“I’m tired of doing funerals for young people that life has been snuffed out,” said Rev. Haynes.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist  (D-St. Petersburg) is also running for governor. He said the roundtable on gun violence - which was held at St. Petersburg’s Urban League offices - was about listening.

“These are the people who are in the community day in and day out,” said Crist. “And understand it better than anybody.”

But what Crist often heard from members of the panel, was frustration. The rash of violence in South St. Petersburg, they said, requires more than ideas. It requires action.

“And congressmen, you will see, it doesn’t take a legislative move to make that happen,” said St. Petersburg City Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders. “It takes a selfless act of us to want, us wanting to make it happen.”

Many at the table shared personal stories of relatives lost to gun violence.

They included community activist Matt Byrd, who to this day carries a bullet in his back as a reminder of the life-long toll taken by gun violence.

“The next shooter is not waving a flag saying, ‘I need help.' We have to find him. But we’re not gonna find him if he doesn’t trust us,” Byrd said.

Panel members told the congressman about the need for a more holistic approach including prams that teach young parents how to be more responsible. Nutritional assistance for newborns to age five. Peer groups - not outsiders - who teenagers will trust.

St. Petersburg City Council Member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who lost her son to gun violence, also made an emotional, personal plea to support for those left to grieve after losing a loved one.

“We cannot forget about the families,” she said.

The forum ended with a prayer and a pledge.

Panelists said the financial resources are there, but that there is a need to funnel that money directly into community-based programs.

There was also agreement that existing programs need to communicate better and work more collaboratively to move in the right direction.

For all the city of St. Petersburg has going for it, the rate of violent crime isn’t going unnoticed.

On the same day as the roundtable, the financial website WalletHub had published a study of the nation’s safest and least-safe cities. Near the bottom of that list - ranking 174th out of 182 - was St. Petersburg.