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    Homeless shelters filling up

    Across the bay area, shelters are turning away people seeking refuge from the cold.

    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    Marvin Wilbon, 42, waits in line behind Victor Rodriguez, also 42, to receive blankets and sheets while checking in for the night Monday at the Salvation Army shelter in St. Petersburg.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Neatly wrapped presents -- donated by charity -- rest beneath a glass coffee table at Cynthia Conley's rented house in Coquina Key, but she's thinking past Christmas Day right now.

    Mrs. Conley is focusing on January, when she expects to be thrown out of her house, because she can't afford the $450 rent. She has called homeless shelters throughout Pinellas County, which give the same refrain: no room at the inn.

    Across the Tampa Bay area, homeless shelters say they are full or nearly so.

    "The shelter is full and has been constantly full and we are turning away a number of families each day," said Joan Malone, of the ASAP shelter in St. Petersburg.

    It has gotten so bad that Lisa Barabas-Henry was looking for a big Army tent this week, hoping to find at least a canvas home for the needy people who keep streaming into Holy Ground in Hudson.

    "It would keep them from the streets, it would keep them from freezing," Barabas-Henry said.

    Given the chilly weather this week, it's a scary time for Mrs. Conley, 38. She spent years as an addict and did stints in prison, but vowed after she got out last April not to be sent away from her family again. That's what worries her the most.

    "I have children who are depending on me," said Mrs. Conley, who said she recently lost her job. She called as many shelters as she could find the numbers for, and all said they couldn't place her. Child welfare workers placed four of her children with relatives during her drug years, but she is still trying to support her 19-year-old daughter, who is pregnant, and 18-year-old son. "I can't let them down anymore."

    The shelters always seem to be busy during the holidays, and this week's cold snap probably drove more people to the temporary homes, shelter directors said.

    "I think it's the weather," said Maria Rutkin, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, which was full with 220 people, and which recently decided to stop providing emergency housing except to those who make a commitment to get off the streets.

    "We are actually turning people away," said Lisa Hughes, program director for Religious Community Services' Grace House, which has 13 three-bedroom apartments in north Pinellas that sometimes house more than one family.

    "With the combination of the holidays and the cold weather, it really is putting the pinch on the shelters to meet the needs of the community," she said.

    Cold-weather shelters have opened during the recent chilly nights, but those are temporary shelters where people don't live on an ongoing basis.

    Some also blame welfare reform, which prevents some parents from receiving welfare checks after a certain time period.

    "The folks who were on welfare now usually have minimum wage jobs," Malone said.

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