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Stuck on the streets, he finds his footing

Valeriy Borisenko lost his job - and his home. Then he met two outreach workers, and things began to change.

By JON WILSON
Published October 4, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Valeriy Borisenko liked the sound of St. Petersburg. He even knew the story of Peter Demens, who named a tiny village on Tampa Bay after the city of St. Petersburg in Russia.

He didn't count on becoming homeless here. And then he didn't count on being rescued.

The native Armenian immigrated to the United States in 1994 and worked in New York City before he was drawn to St. Petersburg about two years ago. He said he worked at Pinellas Park's Expo Center, but when it closed in 2004, he was out of a job and couldn't pay his monthly rent.

That started a downward spiral.

"Where I can go? I didn't want to live on street," said Borisenko, 45.

He came close to it. He said he had roommates who were substance abusers, wouldn't pay their rent and who wound up evicted.

Borisenko worked day labor, sometimes managing stays in shelters to avoid urban camping.

About three weeks ago, Richard Shireman and Richard Linkiewicz, who compose St. Petersburg's Homeless Outreach Team, spied Borisenko at Mirror Lake.

"He was just sitting there on the bank. He was very miserable," Shireman said.

But from that moment, things began looking up for Borisenko.

Shireman and Linkiewicz count him as one of their success stories, although it hasn't been long since they met him.

"It was very encouraging, among a lot of discouraging experiences, to have this happen," Shireman said.

With the outreach duo's guidance, Borisenko got a long-term place to stay at St. Vincent de Paul's Sophie Sampson Center for Hope.

He got a job at St. Anthony's Hospital a few blocks away. He is on the housekeeping staff, works the late shift and earns enough to pay rent at the center.

"I'm lucky," Borisenko said. "These guys put my body in the right place."

All day, five days a week, Shireman and Linkiewicz cruise downtown, looking for homeless people. They make up to 50 contacts a week. During the past two months, the number of homeless appears to have increased, Shireman said.

The partners try to get people into housing, find them counseling, get them off drugs or alcohol, guide them toward work. It's not easy, they say, to sort out all the issues their clients face.

Borisenko, they say, is unusual. He had no substance abuse problems, and he carried a powerful work ethic.

"He was willing to endure whatever needed to be endured, and do whatever needed to be done to get out of the situation," Shireman said.

He points out that crucial to landing a steady job usually is having stable lodging with a mailing address, phone and something as simple as a place to regularly shower and wash clothes.

It's why the city needs more long-term shelters, Shireman said.

Borisenko said his immediate goals are to save money, improve his English and take computer classes.

"And," he said, "I want to look for a second job."

[Last modified October 3, 2006, 22:07:49]


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