For want of a rent check

One couple's story

Stanley Carol and Connie Thomas could have been your neighbors. Or cashiers at Publix. Or that nice couple you met at a Vinoy Park festival.

But these days if you run into Carol, a short woman with deep crow's feet and laugh lines on her face, or Thomas, a lumbering man with construction-worker hands, you might, like most passersby, hurry past them without taking a second look. With their thin blankets and loaded-up bikes, they fade into the anonymous ranks of the homeless

Carol and Thomas don't wear the clean clothes they used to. Sometimes they have to use an alleyway as a bathroom, though they try hard not to. And they don't find much to smile about anymore.

Carol, 43, and Thomas, 36, aren't wizened alcoholics with shopping carts. The Pinellas County natives don't enjoy being homeless for the "freedom," nor do they travel to different locales looking for a handout. They don't like how the shelters smell, and they try to get a hotel once in a while to feel normal again.

Earlier this year, Thomas says she was living in her own tiny St. Pete apartment, when her daughter came to stay with her. "She was in an abusive relationship," Thomas says, so the reunited family decided to move into another, bigger (and more expensive) apartment to start a new life. But within a month, she says, her daughter left to be with the abusive boyfriend and Thomas was left to pay the rent. The bills stacked up. Her meager salary couldn't get her out of the hole and the landlord evicted her, she says.

Meanwhile, Carol, her boyfriend of 11 years, lost his job. He had been living with his grandmother, but a few months later she died. Unable to pay the rent, he joined Thomas on the streets.

"I'm not going to say it's not my fault I'm homeless," Thomas says proudly, but she adds that St. Pete's high rents and lack of jobs and centralized social services didn't help any.

Despite being homeless for eight months now, the couple says they cannot seem to get used to sleeping on the sidewalk and eating from soup kitchens.

"It's an embarrassment that we have to wear clothes for a week, but we have to," Thomas laments.

Carol and Thomas do day labor, trying to save money for an apartment. But rents keep rising, and saving for a deposit while making only $40-$50 a day seems impossible. At night, they try to find a place in downtown St. Pete where they can sleep in peace. But those places are hard to come by — the shelters are always full, and when they turn to the streets, the couple risks violating some city ordinance.

"They drive us out of the places that we used [to sleep in]," Carol says. "I'm just living a human life. Who am I hurting? I'm not hurting anybody."

When asked what would help get them off the streets, Carol suggests expanding rent programs that provide housing money for three months instead of 30 days — barely enough time to get their first check from a new job. He says even 60-day loans, with job placement, could help him get off the street.

"They don't realize they could wind up in a similar experience as this," Thomas says, pointing to the well-dressed businesspeople walking up Third Avenue N. "But your luck can change."

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