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Pulling up stakes in tent city

When the Gillispies lost $800, they had little left but each other. Their salvation, and their ticket home, comes in the midst of the debate about homelessness in St. Petersburg.

Published February 4, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - He's saving the cigar. It's a fat one, as long as his hand, still in the wrapper.

Robert Gillispie found it in a garbage bin a few weeks back, when he started scrapping.

He tucked it inside a black men's dress shoe that he'd dug up in another bin. He wrapped the shoe in a torn blanket and hid it in the corner of his tent.

"I'm saving it," he told his wife, "until we get home."

Life on the street

Robert and his wife, Becky, live under an overpass, in a donated tent, in a dusty parking lot by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, surrounded by more than 100 other homeless people.

It's loud beneath the highway. Cars rumble overhead, sounding like semis; semis roll over, roaring like trains. The air is a stew of garbage and exhaust, body odor and yesterday's beer.

Robert and Becky spend most days collecting aluminum cans or, when Robert's knee is aching, huddling in their tent. They have been on the streets for almost a month.

On Tuesday, after shivering through the coldest night all winter, they sat wrapped in a Finding Nemo sleeping bag. Robert had on a Yankees ball cap he'd fished out of the garbage and scrubbed with a toothbrush. Becky was wearing a canary yellow fleece, two sizes too big.

Robert told Becky, "We've got to get out of here."

Precarious existence

Robert is 46 but looks a decade older. He'll tell you how handsome he once was, how he could still be, "if someone would fix my teeth."

He used to be a nurse's aide. For years, he painted motels. Six years ago, he says, he slipped in a Kroger's grocery store and hurt his right knee. He hasn't worked since.

He and Becky had always been drinkers. After Robert's injury, they started bingeing even more. He knows they have a problem. A few days ago, when Becky rounded up $8 panhandling, they spent it on - in this order - a six-pack, cigarettes and sandwiches.

They live off their disability checks: between them, about $800 a month. Becky can't work because of a mental disability. "I can't read or write," she says. "I can't even tell time."

She's 44, barely 5 feet tall. She and Robert have been married for 28 years. They have three grown children, one in jail and two barely getting by, and a 3-year-old granddaughter. For years, they rented half a duplex outside Indianapolis.

It started getting cold there in October. When they'd saved enough money, they bought bus tickets to Florida. They fancied themselves snowbirds; they'd rent a trailer somewhere warm and go back to Indianapolis when it started getting hot. They landed in St. Petersburg, found a single-wide off Haines Road.

The last Friday in December, they say, they cashed their disability checks and hopped a bus to Madeira Beach to celebrate. They spread towels on the sand, tucked their clothes and fanny pack under the towels and went swimming. When they came back, their money - more than $800 - was gone.

They begged for change to pay the bus fare back to their mobile home. Over the weekend, they packed what would fit into four backpacks. They knew they couldn't pay their January rent. So the day after New Year's, they headed for tent city.

St. Petersburg has been struggling with its homeless problem. Police have pushed people off properties, slashed their tents.

Robert and Becky had never been homeless before. Soon, they were caught in the controversy. They moved three times before landing under the overpass.

Help comes knocking

By Tuesday, all they had left was four crackers, enough Bugle tobacco for one cigarette, a can of Natural Light and that cigar.

Just after 1:30, while Robert was rolling the last smoke, a man crouched outside their zip-up door. He had short, gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was smiling so hard his cheeks hurt.

"Hey," the man called, peering into the tent. "You guys ready to go home?"

Getting out of here

They had met him there, in tent city. Becky had asked him for change. The man, Wayne Tindale from the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, had promised he would try to help if they stayed sober for three days. He knew they couldn't help themselves in a stupor.

Robert and Becky had tried. They had drunk some beers but hadn't binged.

"You've done good," Wayne told them. "You can leave at 4 or wait till 7. You're taking the bus."

Wayne had tracked down Robert's younger sister, who lives in a three-bedroom apartment outside Indianapolis. She had agreed to let Robert and Becky stay with her for a while. So Wayne had contacted Daystar Life Center, a nonprofit agency on Sixth Street S, and workers there had bought the homeless couple one-way bus tickets.

"We're getting out of here? Today?" Robert asked. His listless eyes lit up. "We can be ready to take the 4 o'clock. . . . We're ready now."

A half-hour later, they had packed four sweat shirts, two blankets, a wrench, a screwdriver and the shoe stuffed with the cigar.

Their neighbors watched while they worked, waiting to see what they would leave behind. "You going to take that baby buggy?" "That tent going with you?"

Others congratulated Robert and Becky: They were getting out. One man cried when he hugged them goodbye.

"So you're going to the promised land?" he asked.

"Yep," Robert said. "We're going home."

Celebration in store

At the Greyhound station, Robert stood frozen in the lobby, staring at a TV on the wall. "I haven't seen one of those in months," he said.

Old Star Trek was on. "That's my favorite show," Robert said. "If someone would put me in a rocket ship and shoot me out of this world, I'd go."

Becky came up behind him, clutching an orange plastic pill bottle filled with pennies. "You got 100 in there you want to sell?" Wayne asked her.

Becky smiled: "132. Our life savings."

Wayne opened his wallet, peeled off a $20 and a $5 and pressed them into Becky's palm. "Thank you," she said, staring at the bills. "Thank you, sir."

The couple climbed the bus steps, struggling beneath their swollen backpacks. "Is this the one to Indianapolis?" Robert asked. The driver nodded, tore his ticket. "We're going home," Robert said, "in time to win the Super Bowl."

And smoke that cigar.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 20:20:25]

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