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Special report: The homeless struggle

Hill Thornton: "I was a rebel without a clue"

Published February 18, 2007

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Hill Thornton, 45, prays during a religious service Thursday at Suncoast Haven of Rest Mission in Pinellas Park. He has been homeless twice in his life but found hope at the mission, where he's on the staff.

Multimedia report: The Homeless Struggle

PINELLAS PARK - At the front of the room, the preacher warns about drifting away from God, ignoring the three men sleeping with their heads on the table.

Close by, another man rests his head against his hand, and his eyes slowly close. A few seconds later his body jerks, rousing him from his short slumber.

Here at the Suncoast Haven of Rest Mission in Pinellas Park, it's not uncommon for loud yawns to interrupt the flowing words of everlasting salvation.

Weariness is part of being homeless. It's hard to get enough sleep on the street, when you're constantly interrupted by noise and worried for your safety.

That's why Hill Thornton stands out. He is alert and enraptured by the message. And he's in transition.

Thornton, 45, is homeless, but he has a small but reliable job that is helping him get off the streets, a change he attributes to his decision to accept Jesus.

"I just got tired of rebelling against God," Thornton says. "I was a rebel without a clue."

Thornton was living in a tent with three others and simply "got tired of the drinkin' and druggin.' "

It's a hard life, he says, full of fear, fatigue and hunger.

"I always had this impending fear: What's next? Not only do you have to worry about the cops, other people come and steal (from you)," Thornton says.

It's the simple things most people take for granted that hurt the most. Like showers. Many outreach programs provide them only during the day. If a homeless person is lucky enough to snag a day job, he misses a shower.

Convenience stores can be a good place to have a "basin" bath, but those only work so well and store managers will throw you out if they catch you, he says.

The hunger is the worst.

It will drive a person to a smelly trash bin in search of food, he says. You quickly learn to be outside grocery stores to grab discarded bread and pastries. Those are still in the wrapper. Fruit also is good, because it can be washed.

But there's competition.

"You get there too late, and there's nothing left," he says.

And while Thornton believes he's on his way out, he says he's "scared to death" he won't succeed.

"I don't want to go back to that," he said. "I take it one day at a time."

Thornton has been homeless twice in his life. Once was about three or four years ago when he lived under a bridge over Joe's Creek at 28th Street N in the unincorporated Lealman area.

He was there for about six months with eight other homeless people.

Thornton managed to get off the street and get a job that lasted until the beginning of last year, when the company closed. He worked as a welder for a short time after that, but that job ended, too.

Thornton tried day labor. But he could not find work every day. When he did, the pay wasn't much - $40 or $50 - and he fell off the wagon. By October, he was homeless again.

The homeless tell each other about places that offer a hot meal. That's how Thornton came to the Haven of Rest on Dec. 17.

With God's help, he says, he found the strength to become sober starting that day.

That week, Thornton went to Haven of Rest every day. On Dec. 21, he attended the mission's Christian-based 12-step program and decided to rededicate his life to God.

A few weeks later, he became a staff member, earning $25 a week helping in the kitchen.

"I get paid in a lot of other ways," Thornton said. "It's not really for the pay. I do it because I like it. ... It's a bunch of good people. They're just down on their luck."

At first Thornton cooked hot meals for the homeless.

"It's all country style cooking 'cause I'm from Georgia," he says. "Everybody loves it. I don't have any complaints."

But that didn't last long. Pinellas Park officials used zoning rules to stop the mission from serving hot meals. The mission now provides bag lunches for the homeless and working poor.

So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Thornton oversees the making of 800 to 900 bologna and cheese, and peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches.

He's also applied to Worknet Pinellas for job training and plans to open a checking account. He still has no place of his own to call home; he's bunking with various friends, not on the street.

"So far, so good," Thornton says. "What do I expect out of the future? Whatever the good Lord gives me."

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 16:19:20]

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