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One homeless night

Right before an all-American holiday of abundance, kids step outside their comfort zone for a sleepover they won't soon forget.

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
At Williams Park recently, teenagers listen to a homeless woman talk about her experiences. The girls, Kari Colville, 14, Molly Falter, 14, and Amanda Shelley, 15, from left, listen to Amy Girton, foreground, talk about living in a truck with her fiance. The kids were on a church retreat designed to stoke compassion and let them know firsthand what being desperately poor might feel like.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 4, 2002

Raindrops left from an overnight downpour drip from the trees as dawn creeps across the sky.

St. Petersburg's Williams Park is mostly deserted, the rain and chill having driven away the homeless who camp overnight under the trees. But as the sky lightens, they shuffle in from their shelters under nearby porticos and other makeshift refuges.

Unbathed and unshaven, hands in pockets and shoulders hunched against the cold, the dispirited head to the east side of the park, where breakfast is being set up.

Before some reach the line, they are greeted by teenagers who are passing out brown bags of food for lunch. Some of the teens talk with the homeless. Others dish out eggs. Still other youngsters wait to get paper plates of food that they can carry to a hungry man in a wheelchair and his disabled friend.

For some of the kids, the sights and stories are too much. They burst into tears.

"Just seeing the lady over there," said Carolyn Weaver, 16. "She had a baby. I gave her my sweat shirt. I felt bad."

Said Christina Martin, 17: "We've found a guy (who) was homeless since he was 4 years old. We just want to help him."

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Jessica Fey, 18, left, comforts Christina Martin, 17, when the realities of homelessness hit hard.

Carolyn and Christina won't soon forget the weekend before Thanksgiving, when they and roughly 50 of their peers from Sacred Heart Catholic Church got a reality check of the homeless experience.

The goals of the all-night program are to create compassion and understanding for the less fortunate, to teach kids to be less judgmental and, because the event is just before the holiday, to make sure they understand what they're thankful for on that day of bounty.

Sacred Heart started the program four years ago for eighth-graders who needed to participate in a retreat to prepare for confirmation.

Kids were treated as if they were homeless. They slept outside. They ate only one serving of soup -- what a homeless person might receive at a shelter. They were rousted by the Pinellas Park police, who tore down their cardboard shelters.

The kids that year were so moved by their experience that they decided to go to Williams Park every other Sunday to feed the homeless and hand out clothing. They now provide the leadership for the younger kids during their experience.

"It makes you a better person," said John Gaydos, 17, who was in the first homeless retreat. "I think it has made me mature. It gives you a sense of the real world.

"If you live under a roof," he said, "you're high class."

Every year the retreat gets a bit bigger and more serious, John said. This year brought a new dimension: rain and a cold snap.

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Carolyn Weaver, 16, offers lunch bags to the breakfast crowd in Williams Park. She ended up giving her sweat shirt to a woman with a baby.

"I'm happy it's raining, so I get the real feeling of being homeless," said first-timer Julie Jaime, 14.

First on the agenda at 4 p.m. Saturday was Mass. The Rev. John Tapp gave a homily on investing in one's faith. The vigil is "a reminder to us of God's love for our sisters and brothers."

He added: "I know this is selfish. I'm glad I'm not out there."

About 5 p.m. in Sacred Heart's Parish Hall at 80th Avenue and 46th Street N, the youth ministers set the rules:

-- Each teen was limited to four items necessary to survival, not including the clothes they were wearing.

"You will be searched. You are subject to search all night long."

-- Banned items -- food, cell phones -- would be confiscated.

-- The youth ministers and teen leaders could "steal" from the younger kids. The "stealing" mimics life on the streets.

"If you are homeless, you will be stolen from," the ministers said. They suggested that the kids not remove their shoes until they go to sleep, then put them under their pillows, if they have pillows.

-- Obey the police officers who show up.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
It's a cold and soggy Saturday night on the softball field at Sacred Heart Catholic School. John Gaydos, 17, a veteran of the first homeless retreat, has wrapped himself in a blanket. "It makes you a better person," he said. "It gives you a sense of the real world."

"This is not an evening you will get a whole lot of sleep," youth minister Dennis Shelley said. "Don't be afraid to sing. Don't be afraid to pray."

The search began. Kids emptied their pockets. Cell phones, candy, a football, a soccer ball were taken.

In the courtyard between the Parish Hall and the school, they were divided into smaller groups and began to get to know each other: where they go to school, what they want to do in life, what they expected to get out of the evening.

"I want to see what homeless people are really like," said one.

Another: "I got an uncle that's homeless, so I already know what it's like. It's hard."

Throughout the evening, the small groups, led by the older teens, met several times for discussions about judging others, why people are homeless and how to help them, choices, racism and appearance.

Kids discriminate even in a school where uniforms are worn, one said.

"It's stupid. We're all wearing the same thing, (but) they have to find something to make fun of."

Around 6 p.m., they heard from Richard Webendorfer and his wife, Suzy. Webendorfer was homeless for about two months. Part of that time, he lived in Williams Park. Part, he was in jail.

Born in New York, Webendorfer said he rose to manage seven Burger Kings at one time. Then, addicted to alcohol, his life changed.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Dinner is served. Ben Sorrell, 14, gets his bowl of chicken noodle soup and can of lemonade.

"When you fall, you fall very hard," he said. "To have all your worldly possessions stripped, you go to God. ... Being homeless is not a sin. Jesus helped the homeless."

What's it like? he was asked.

"You sleep with one eye open, one eye closed and you don't sleep too long," he said. "You really don't even want to get used to it."

What four items do homeless people want?

"Blanket, blanket, blanket, blanket," he said.

Dinner was watery chicken noodle soup, crackers and canned lemonade. The steam from the soup rose into the cool, damp air, a portent of the night ahead.

Around 8:30, the kids spread their sleeping bags on the playing field behind the school. Girls on one side of the field, boys on the other.

One girl suddenly yelped: "Where'd our shoes go?"

"They stole our shoes already."

"Amanda, our shoes are gone."

One girl gave a shoeless girl a piggyback ride to keep her feet dry. Another shared her shoes. With one wearing the right shoe and the other the left, they clasped each other around the shoulders and hopped across the field.

Then: "It's raining."

"I shouldn't have brought my good pillow."

"I'm going to put my pillow inside here 'cause it's getting wet."

"Oh, my feet are cold."

A youth minister offered to let a girl "buy" back her shoes by giving up another item. The minister suggested the girl's gold chain. The girl refused, saying a relative gave it to her. The minister asked for her comb. She turned over the necklace.

At 9:45, the Pinellas Park police arrived.

"All right, folks, pack it up," a cop said. "Get going."

"Where are we supposed to sleep, sir?"

"I don't care. Get out of sight."

"You have any idea where we're supposed to sleep?"

"St. Pete. All right, guys, get up. Get going. Pack it up."

The kids returned to the courtyard. They moved four more times during the night as the rain pummeled down, flooding them out.

So it went until early the next morning, the kids headed for Williams Park for the final dose of reality.

"Emotion's running pretty high right now, but that's when it's effective," youth minister Emily Shelley said. "The whole retreat would not have worked without this."

The Sacred Heart eighth-graders later asked their principal if they could do a blanket and coat drive for "their" homeless people. They also plan to go along with the older teens who feed the homeless at Williams Park twice a month.

"I think it's making all of us a better person," Carolyn Weaver said. "We walk away from it. Ours is one night. Theirs is their whole lives sometimes."

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