Demystifying the system: the St. Petersburg outreach team

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Outreach is a practice most often engaged in by non-profit and faith-based organizations linking their mission to the general public. The mission of homeless street outreach teams is to connect an area’s homeless population to much-needed services like housing or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. To do that, a team has to know the people it’s reaching out to.


Officer Rich Linkiewicz is St. Petersburg’s Homeless Outreach Officer and the other half of St. Pete’s outreach team. Ryne and Rich have worked together for about a year through a government grant that funds Ryne’s position at Operation PAR. There are two other outreach teams in Pinellas County—one in Clearwater, and one in Pinellas Park. Together with St. Petersburg, those three cities have the highest populations of homeless in the county. St. Petersburg alone claimed 45.6 percent of Pinellas’ homeless last year.


Tent City pickup begins at 9:00 sharp, when Officer Rich’s white Ford F150 parks on the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 5th Street. Rich is always in the driver’s seat; Ryne is always in the passenger seat. People gather round with referrals in hand. Getting a referral is like standing in a queue.


Tent city didn’t always use a referral system. When they first opened, before people started flooding their gates, there were enough vacancies to let everyone in who wanted to come. It hasn’t been that way for awhile.


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Rich says some people show up every week for several months before they’re finally able to go. Some people, discouraged by the long wait, just stop coming. Others know to keep showing up. Eventually, their time will come.


“I have people show up every Thursday trying to get in,” Rich says. “Some of the same people every Thursday. It’s all nice; there are no favorites. I mean, I got pregnant people out there, people who are hurt.”


One woman, Rich says, has come out every week for the last three months on behalf of her husband.


“She comes out every week,” he says. “[Her husband] needs to be in a nursing home. He’s dually diagnosed, alcohol and mental issues. He goes into the hospitals, and then she takes him out, they end up on the street. I mean, it is her husband, and she’s got a real hard time of letting him go into the nursing home to battle his issues. She wants him with her.”


Today, they have two openings. Everyone else will have to come back next week.


On the way to Tent City, Ryne and Rich take two phone calls for pickups. One of them is from Turning Point, a drug rehabilitation center. Two of their clients are ready to transition out of treatment and want to come to Tent City.


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“It’s for their treatment,” says Rich, “because they’ll do like, thirty, sixty days there. They’ve got two on the list. Usually they’ve got one or two. The majority does come from City Hall, though.”


Ryne gets another from the Salvation Army. “We got someone who wants to go into detox,” he says. “He’s got a problem with alcohol, and he wants some help, so they called the access center at Operation PAR and they had an opening. They’re ready for him, so we’re going to get him there.”


Rich drops us off at Tent City and goes to pick up the clients from Turning Point. Ryne walks our two City Hall admits through the intake process.


“They need to fill out some paperwork,” he says. “The first round of paperwork is for a background check. The ladies inside run the background checks, and while we’re out here, I’ll breathalyze them and give them drug tests. They have to drop a clean urine and also blow triple zeros on a breathalyzer. And then we’ve got some other paperwork. It takes a couple hours.”


The background checks bring up a complete history of every client. The office is looking for any sexual offenses or recent violent crimes. Sexual offenders are not allowed at Tent City, but clients have a chance to explain some violent crimes.


“You know, if someone has a domestic battery in 1992, we really don’t worry about that too much,” says Ryne. “But if they have a domestic battery from December, then it goes upstairs, to some of the higher-ups here, and we have a conversation.”


When the intake is done, we’re back out on the streets. In the car, Rich’s phone rings again. A homeless woman that Rich knows well has been attacked by her boyfriend and is hiding at the Wendy’s on 34th Street South. She was also attacked by a woman at knifepoint, and is worried that the woman knows where she is. She is also five months pregnant.


“We give them our cards, you know, ‘When you’re ready, give us a call. We’re here for you,’” he says. “And that’s what it’s all about. And that’s for all our folks. [Ryne] will make contacts, and the folks that you think will never want help, at one point, at some time, the phone rings, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re calling.’ ‘Yep, I’m ready for the help. I want to get into detox. I’m tired, I want to get off the street.’ ‘Yep. Sounds good.’ So it’s one of those, ‘When you’re ready, we’re ready.’”

For many of our neighbors living on the street, the way up seems like an impossible climb. Government systems are labyrinthine challenges. Every step in the right direction is preceded by a never-ending wait, and endless stacks of paperwork separate them from even the smallest success. Many of them succumb to failure, choosing to sleep on the sidewalk rather than subject themselves to miles of red tape and confusion.

Last year’s point-in-time count identified 6,235 homeless people in Pinellas County with 2,232 of them living unsheltered. That’s a 20 percent increase from 2007 in the number of overall homeless, and an 82.7 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless.

Since opening in December 2007, Pinellas Hope, a.k.a. “Tent City” has been a beacon of light for many struggling to survive on the streets. With approximately 280 tents and casitas, new transitional living facilities, a brand new community center, countless resources from food to medical care to job and housing assistance, and a community of almost 300 other people working their way out of homelessness, it’s no wonder there’s a crowd gathered around the steps of City Hall every Thursday when the St. Petersburg outreach team comes to take people down.

“This is really not that bad,” says Ryne Laxton, Outreach Specialist for Operation PAR and half of the St. Petersburg outreach team. He gazes over a crowd of twelve or thirteen. “There have been times when we’ve had 50 people out here.”

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