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Group takes stock of city's homeless

Published January 30, 2007

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Volunteers scoured Pinellas County's hidden homeless camps and public soup kitchens Monday, counting those who have no place to live.

At least one location proved easy to find for the annual homeless survey: a new tent city in St. Petersburg.

About 25 tents sprang up over the weekend near Interstate 275, just a few blocks from a similar camp that gained national attention after police slashed open tents this month.

Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless sponsored the census, using 200 volunteers, many of whom work for social service agencies. They asked people about their mental health needs, where they slept, how they make money.

The figures won't be tallied for at least several weeks. But hundreds agreed to be interviewed, volunteers say, despite worry that has spread through the homeless community following the tent city raid and recent shooting of two homeless men.

Many hoped answering the survey would bring more attention to the homeless. Each got a free T-shirt and a cloth "ditty bag" filled with socks, a comb, disposable towels, a toothbrush and breath mints.

Kevin Marshall, who said he stayed with a friend "off and on," answered questions as he waited in the food line at St. Vincent de Paul. "They're trying to help people," he said.

A few were critical.

"It's kind of hypocritical to come in and do a survey and then not go to bat for the people that the survey's for," said Brad Bradford, a 55-year-old homeless man who says St. Petersburg should do a lot more for the "street homeless."

* * *

Volunteers stationed themselves in soup kitchens and cold-night shelters throughout Pinellas. Others searched for hidden camp sites.

In Pinellas Park, police rode on horseback along the railroad tracks and in all-terrain vehicles in wooded areas. They found mattresses and tents, but no people. They figured many had decided to stay in cold-night shelters overnight.

Janet Walker, a Pinellas County schools resource teacher, drove up and down U.S. 19 from Clearwater to Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, stopping at small motels where day laborers are known to stay.

At each stop, Walker explained the coalition's definition of the homeless: people who stay in a temporary shelter, such as a hotel or motel, because they can't afford first and last months' rent.

The desk clerk at the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel in Clearwater told her that five to 10 rooms generally are occupied by people with no permanent residence. But fewer homeless people are guests at the end of the month.

"As their money runs out, they go back to the woods," he said.

A few doors down, the manager of the Butterfly Lodge Motel told Walker a couple who used to live in a cemetery was staying there. Another couple had stayed there recently but left because they couldn't afford the rent, the manager said.

* * *

In St. Petersburg, volunteers counted and interviewed a group that had moved from a tent city at 15th Street and Fifth Avenue N over the weekend to a new location on 18th Street between Central Avenue and First Avenue N. They didn't like some of the commotion and drug use they said occurred at the old location, they said.

The de facto leader of the new tent city is Kathy Hines, 57, better known as "Mom."

"I'm trying to get help," she said. "We get donations, but I'd like them to donate things like bus passes," so people can get to jobs.

A St. Petersburg police officer drove to the new site Monday and looked around but did not get out of her cruiser.

Police have come by the site before, Hines said. "They do not bother us a bit, not since we've been here."

At lunchtime, Celia Bowser, 70, stopped by with big trays of Brazilian chicken, beans, rice and salad. Bowser said she bought three $2 raffle tickets at her church Sunday, won the food, and decided to give it to homeless people.

Meanwhile, Walker, the resource teacher, wrapped up her day at the Inn on the Hill, a couple of blocks from where the two homeless men were found dead.

Kyle Deodat, the owner, told her that 10 men and one woman who fit her description of homelessness were staying at the motel. She marked the information on her form.

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 01:12:24]

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