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    Homeless seek shelter from chill

    Many are turned away because temperatures have not dropped low enough for some shelters to open their doors.

    [Times photos: Jennifer Davis]
    On a chilly Thursday morning at Williams Park in St. Petersburg, All Nations Seventh-day Adventist Church members Pearl Thompson, left, and Beryl Mitchell, center, serve hot cocoa to the homeless, including Eddie Reed, right, who said he has been homeless for several weeks.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER and MELIA BOWIE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 28, 2001


    Seven degrees meant everything to Don Lane.

    Those degrees dictated whether he would sleep on the street or in a warm shelter on Thursday night; whether he would enjoy a hot meal or endure an empty stomach.

    photo
    A man who gave his name as JoJo blows on his hands to keep his face warm Thursday at Williams Park in St. Petersburg. He said he has been homeless since October.
    For Lane and dozens of homeless people who huddled Thursday in St. Petersburg's Williams Park, seven degrees was all that stood between them and the magic 40-degree mark when many emergency cold-night shelters in the area open their doors.

    "They keep saying it's not cold enough," said Lane, 58, his burly jean-clad body wrapped in a thin yellow blanket. "Well, if you're inside, it may not be cold enough. Try sleeping out here."

    As temperatures returned to the 30s and 40s in the Tampa Bay area on Thursday night, homeless people like Lane felt caught between warm shelters and cold ground. The weather stayed too warm for many cold-night shelters to open in churches and other buildings throughout the region, but too cold for people to sleep outside comfortably.

    "I think it's that time that reminds us that there's not enough emergency shelters out there for the homeless," said Beth Eschenfelder, president of the Pinellas County Homeless Coalition and executive director of the Mustard Seed Foundation, which works with homeless people who have substance abuse problems.

    Temperatures Thursday night were expected to drop to the mid and upper 40s in Pinellas and Hillsborough and to the mid 30s in Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, with a possibility of frost.

    Some agencies decided to open, even though temperatures did not quite fall to the levels at which local counties open designated cold-night shelters. Lane got a break Wednesday when the Turning Point, a shelter affiliated with the Mustard Seed, opened its doors to extra people. Late Thursday, he still did not know whether he could sleep there again.

    In downtown Tampa on Wednesday, the Salvation Army opened its Red Shield Lodge on Florida Avenue and exceeded its normal 125-person capacity. About 170 spent the night there, but some were forced to leave because of a lack of space.

    "We gave them a blanket or a jacket to keep them warm," said Catherine Hammer, director of development. The lodge stayed open to extra people on Thursday night as well.

    Most Pinellas County cold-night shelters are churches that rely on volunteers to staff and supply them during a cold spell -- making the cut-off point a mandatory guideline, Eschenfelder said. Still, "when it's 42 or 45 outside the homeless are going to show up anyway. They're not walking around with thermometers; all they know is it's cold out.

    "Usually people who work in shelters have big hearts and don't want to turn anyone away," she added.

    But sometimes they have to, said shelter officials.

    "It has been unbelievable," said program director Pat McAbee of Everybody's Tabernacle Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, where the staff has been forced to turn away 25 people daily. "We have no room, and there's nowhere else to send them."

    Some homeless said this week they found no room at the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg. Officials there said its 65 beds are generally reserved for those starting new jobs or seeking work.

    In the meantime, officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are trying to find a more efficient way of referring homeless people to shelters.

    Currently, people in the two counties can call 211 -- a social services referral number -- when they need shelter or other help. Operators will give out phone numbers for shelters, but the shelters may be full, which is an aggravation for a homeless person who may not have a handful of quarters for making a series of phone calls.

    In January, Pinellas officials say they will get updated information throughout the day on whether shelters are full, so they can give better direction to the homeless. Hillsborough County's 211 has begun discussion of such a program.

    But the air was still cold in St. Petersburg on Thursday, as Cecelia Saint rested in Williams Park, dressed in a green coat, cotton shirt, thin pants and open-toed sandals, covered with a gray blanket.

    When the shelters don't open "we have a hiding place where we sleep; the benches fill up," she said, her voice heavy with a Caribbean accent.

    "Winter is coming and we need a home," she said.

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