tampabay.com

Pinellas Park team helps homeless mother, son

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published March 13, 2007


The call for the city's Homeless Outreach Team came Thursday from Pinellas Park Middle School.

A mother and her 8-year-old son had been living in a car for about two weeks. The school's social worker had tried to find shelter for them but was unsuccessful. Could the new outreach team help?

The two team members could. But it took awhile.

"I was really sweating. ... I didn't really know what I was going to do," said Sharon Nivens, the social worker assigned by Directions for Mental Health to partner with Pinellas Park police Officer Steve Vangeli.

The pair's goal is to get homeless people off the street by providing immediate help and directing them to programs to get their lives back on track.

The Pinellas Park program, which has been up and running for about two weeks, had mostly catered to homeless men. Thursday's situation was a first for Nivens and Vangeli. The mother had been living with her sister but had to leave after the women had a fight.

"She had everything she owned in the car ... heart-wrenching," Nivens said.

While Nivens searched for shelter, Vangeli entertained the child.

"He was very upset that I would know he was in a car with mom and he was afraid that he would be taken away," Vangeli said. After he spoke with the boy for a while, he calmed down.

The boy need not have worried. Vangeli said he and Nivens agreed that "we would not go home until (they) were placed."

Nivens got a list of 10 shelters from the Women's Resource Center. One after another was full.

The ninth call was successful. The pair went to Magdalene House in St. Petersburg.

Vangeli and Nivens have been busy since the Pinellas Park program kicked off March 2. Vangeli said they take an average of four or five homeless people to shelters each day.

But things got a little tricky last week when the Turning Point shelter in St. Petersburg closed while a leak was fixed. Turning Point, which caters to substance abusers, had agreed to give the city 24 beds for the homeless people the outreach team finds.

When it had to close, its residents were moved to HEP in Clearwater. That shelter had agreed to provide Pinellas Park with 25 beds for non-substance abusers.

The team worried that the closure might lead to overcrowding at HEP, but that didn't happen, Nivens said.

HEP was able to handle things for the few days, and Turning Point was expected to reopen last Friday afternoon.