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Tent city welcome now

The planned winter encampment will be behind an industrial area.

By EILEEN SCHULTE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


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Every December, the seasonal homeless ride the first blustery winds of winter into Pinellas County, trying to escape the snow and ice up north.

As it did last year, a tent city is expected to pop up to house the nomadic visitors, as well as the local homeless.

But before you start envisioning police slashing tents with box cutters, angry politicians and a community uproar, consider this:

This time, government officials are encouraging the homeless to live in the encampment. And the site is so out of the way you will never see it unless you search for it.

In other words, it is not in your back yard.

The tent city will be located in an industrial area off 49th Street on 126th Avenue. It is literally at the end of the road.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg is offering more than 10 acres of land it owns in this part of unincorporated Pinellas County as a place to pitch about 125 single- and double-occupancy tents, which will house about 225 homeless people during the winter months. Only single people and couples will be permitted to seek shelter at the compound. Families will be directed to other facilities that are better equipped to serve children.

The pilot program is called Pinellas Hope. It was created to address the growing homeless problem the county faces.

The project is part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness by the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, the Homeless Leadership Network and the Health & Human Services Coordinating Council.

The tents will be available from Dec. 1 through April 30.

Key partners are Catholic Charities, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, the city of St. Petersburg and retired businessman Harry Stonecipher.

Catholic Charities plans to contribute as much as $150,000, Stonecipher has offered up to $500,000, and the county plans to set aside more than $461,000 toward the pilot project.

The project is a community-based initiative that will provide mental health, domestic violence and substance abuse services along with the shelters. The goal is to transition at least 40 percent of the homeless into permanent housing.

Local businesses, civic organizations, churches, synagogues and St. Petersburg College's architectural services department are all offering assistance.

"It is the most cost-effective plan at this point and it's something we can get done before December," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

December is when she and other homeless advocates expect the annual seasonal influx of street people, and this year the number is predicted to be higher than normal.

At last count, there were 5,195 homeless people in Pinellas County. At least 1,220 are on the street on any given day, Snyder said.

"First and foremost, we need to provide a safe and warm place for people to sleep," said County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan, who sits on the Homeless Leadership Network board.

The proposal stands in stark contrast to the debacle in January when a collection of homeless people formed a tent city in St. Petersburg.

In an effort to disperse them, police seized 20 tents and slashed eight with box cutters. The move drew weeks of negative repercussions and eventually led to the creation of a city-authorized tent city.

Duncan admits Pinellas Hope is an experiment. But it is not a waste of the taxpayer's money, he said, because even if the plan does not work, "It will provide invaluable data to use on a different model."

The site, which sits near a swampy area, appears to have been neglected for years. It contains crushed beer cans and flattened Gatorade bottles and is thick with scrub brush, dead trees and live pine and oak trees.

Aside from the litter, "It's like Sherwood Forest," said Frank Murphy, a spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The city of St. Petersburg is in the process of preparing the land. Some pine trees will be cut down, but large oaks will be saved.

When the property is cleared, three modular classrooms donated by Pinellas County Schools will be moved to the site. They will be used for food storage, washers and dryers, and a social services center.

Trailers with shower and toilet facilities will be provided.

One warm meal per day will be provided.

Religious Community Services has offered to provide dinners as well as volunteer servers for 40 nights.

"And the kids from Eckerd College want to help," said Murphy.

He also said he is trying to recruit local restaurants to cater some of the food.

Two large commercial tents will be set up where residents can sit at picnic tables and eat, socialize and watch TV.

Progress Energy has donated $5,000 toward the effort.

A fence will surround the camp, and security will be provided on a 24-hour basis.

Participation is strictly voluntary. Nobody will be forced to stay at Pinellas Hope. It's just there if they need it.

"It's not about, if you don't go here you're going to jail," said Maureen Freaney,the county's health and human services director.

The program is not without its weaknesses.

One area that needs to be resolved is transportation. The tent city will be located near the county's midpoint. Murphy said he is trying to find someone who will donate a bus to pick up homeless people in all Pinellas County cities.

Inclement weather could also be a problem. Murphy said he is searching for adequate shelter should there be a tornado or other disaster at the property.

One thing is clear: There is much work yet to be done, and it will take lots of caring people to make the project a success.

"Our society needs to get back to where we are appalled when we see somebody sleeping on the sidewalk," said Beth Eschenfelder, who is a member of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

"We have lost our humanity about this issue."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

By the numbers

5,195 homeless people in Pinellas County.

1,220 homeless people on the street on any given day

125 number of single- and double-occupancy tents to be placed in new tent city

225 homeless people to be housed in winter months via new tent city

[Last modified September 29, 2007, 23:06:02]


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