Homeless stake out Hope

With dreams of new prospects, dozens move into Pinellas' tent city, operated by Catholic Charities.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007

Living in an abandoned warehouse in St. Petersburg, Roger Anderson said he had no real hope of escaping the maddening cycle of homelessness.

As a recovering alcoholic, he was always tempted by the street. A few days ago, the 41-year-old said he had money in his pocket and passed a liquor store without stopping - a proud moment.

How long could he resist?

But on Saturday morning, Anderson joined about 74 homeless Pinellas residents at a project dubbed Pinellas Hope. It's a temporary "tent city" operated by Catholic Charities on 10 acres owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg in mid Pinellas County.

The five-month pilot program was the multiagency response to last year's homeless debacle that thrust the city into an unwanted national spotlight.

That's when St. Petersburg police caused an uproar by slashing dozens of tents belonging to the homeless. Police said they posed a fire hazard.

Catholic Charities hopes to offer an alternative to the street to at least some of the county's estimated 1,500 homeless people.

"This is a chance for me," said Anderson as he set up the free tent. "I'm going to make it work. I feel like I'm going to get my life back."

Sober for nine days, Anderson said he hopes to find a job and an affordable apartment in a few months. He has been homeless two years.

"And if I don't like it, I can go out the gate the same way I came in," Anderson said.

Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, said the effort, funded by more than $1-million in both public and private money and services, shows the community cares.

"I think everybody saw what happened last year and we were sort of embarrassed as a county, embarrassed as a city," Murphy said.

Located at the end of 126th Avenue in an industrially zoned area of unincorporated Pinellas, the project could assist up to 250 people.

Aside from the free tents and toiletries, residents are provided showers, water, food, bathrooms, access to phones and computers, in addition to 24-hour security.

Residents must follow strict rules, including a nightly curfew, no loitering in the neighborhood, volunteering to do chores, no drugs or alcohol and cooperating with social service workers on a plan to obtain self-sufficiency.

Residents also must pass a background check. Those with violent histories or who might be sexual predators aren't admitted. Four people were arrested during the background checks Saturday because they were wanted on active warrants.

Murphy said they were urged to turn themselves in, and they did, though he acknowledged Catholic Charities would have notified police if they hadn't surrendered.

"If we didn't, we would be accused of harboring fugitives," Murphy said. "But we weren't grabbing people and forcing them into police cars."

The tent city is scheduled to be up and running until April 30, when officials will determine if it can be continued.

Not everybody is happy. A few dozen homeless people gathered at City Hall late Saturday, complaining that efforts don't come close to solving homelessness.

Marion Quick, 41, who has been homeless for three years, said he was turned away when a caseworker pressed him on his cocaine addiction. He admitted, if given a drug test Saturday, he wouldn't pass.

Few homeless people, Quick said, have spotless backgrounds. Those are the very people who need the help most, he said.

"I feel like I'm the victim of politics," he said. "They only want us to succeed so it makes the nightly news and they can get their Eagle Scout merit badges."

Others were angered by the rules and a lack of control over their lives.

"We're not children," said Melissa Mushol, 35, a homeless woman protesting at City Hall.

But those who made it through the gates offered few complaints.

Jimmy Hubert, 53, a lifelong Pinellas resident who declined to discuss why he is homeless, said he was overjoyed to be in a safe environment.

"I'm allergic to concrete," he said, referring to the blanket he often slept atop on a sidewalk near City Hall. "It's time to get my butt into gear."