Homeless in St. Petersburg, part 3: Pinellas Hope

“Well, I just check on it every time,” Linda says, “Every chance I get I check to see if I got it, some kind of information or something, even though I am waiting on a year and a half.”


Sheila Lopez, COO and “Godmother” of Pinellas Hope (aka Tent City), a twenty-acre residential campground for Pinellas homeless, remembers Linda from her temporary stays there almost two years ago. Linda lived at Pinellas Hope with her seven-year boyfriend, Bobby “Mad Dog” Donahue, on two separate occasions shortly after the facility opened in 2007.


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Pinellas Hope is the only shelter in the county that allows couples to live together without being married, making it ideal for Linda and Bobby, who say they've chosen not to wed for fear of compromising the disability benefits they’ve repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, applied for.


When Bobby was kicked out of Pinellas Hope for drinking (something that is expressly prohibited because many of its residents are recovering from alcohol or drug addiction), Linda, who is not a drinker, went with him. The first time, she left immediately. The second time, she waited a few weeks, and then left.


“I made her stay there,” Bobby says, “I slept in the woods behind the Shell station. I’d see her every morning. She got me my coffee.”


I visited Pinellas Hope on Saturday night and found Sheila Lopez marching around the campground in forty-degree weather right alongside her residents, wrapped in a heavy coat and knit socks. Together we saw the free laundry facility, the computer lathe dining tent, the community tent, the heated bathrooms and showers, the tent grounds, the “sheds”, and the twenty brand new, transitional apartments, which Sheila is hoping may multiply in the coming months. We also saw the foundation of the new indoor community center, and the grounds’ new medical trailer, which in the past week welcomed a volunteer dentist to the team. Residents have access to free medical care on the Mobile Medical Unit, as well, and


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transportation to and from doctors’ appointments.


Sheila says she’s tried to get Linda back into Pinellas Hope, but that Linda won’t come without Bobby: “I went down to the park a couple months ago when the young man got hit by the fire bus, but she wouldn’t come near me without Mad Dog.”


Linda and Bobby have lived together on the streets for seven years. Linda has told me that she didn’t think she’d be going back to Pinellas Hope because Bobby was not allowed in. But recently, she had a change of heart.


Bobby says an outreach officer working with Pinellas Hope approached him in Williams Park last Wednesday and told him that he and Linda were welcome to come back…as long as he goes to detox.


“She’s gotta talk to Sheila, and I gotta go into detox for thirty days,” Bobby tells me, “But I’ll do anything if it’s gonna get her off the street.”


Sheila says she worked really hard to help Bobby get sober, even offering him six months at Solid Rock rehab facility, but that Bobby wouldn’t go.


According to Pinellas Hope’s rules, a person will not be allowed on the property if, “the presence of that individual could threaten the safety of other clients and personnel.” In fact, part of the residents’ intake procedure involves a drug test and background check. Even though alcohol violates the Tent City code of conduct, sometimes a resident will not be evicted for drinking if it’s evident that that person is making progress or does not endanger the other residents. For a couple of months while Bobby was living there, he was doing really well,


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Sheila says. He was getting clean; he was taking care of himself. But when he relapsed, she says, he relapsed hard. Now, if he wants to come back, he has to show them he’s serious about getting clean.


“[Sheila’s] gonna let her in, no problem,” Bobby says, “I’m gonna have to go through a detox if I wanna to get back in. I don’t have a choice.”


When Linda heard that Pinellas Hope was going to let her back in, she went to talk to the outreach officer herself. According to her story, he told her to meet him outside of City Hall at 9:00 with her belongings ready—normal procedure for the weekly Tent City pickup, which happens at that location every Thursday morning. When she went there, though, instead of being taken to Tent City, she was given a referral.


“Yesterday they told me to meet them in front of City Hall at nine o’clock, so I was there, Ok. And it got time for them to show up, I took everything out of my wagon, you know, beside the curb. I took the wagon to the dumpster, because I thought I was gonna go. Ok, all they did was gave me a referral, and this guy, lying, told me to call him if I changed my mind.”


Because of the volume of people trying to get in to Pinellas Hope every week, it’s not always possible to take everyone at once. In fact, Sheila says, it almost never happens anymore. When Linda came to Pinellas Hope a few years ago, shortly after they opened, there was no waiting list. She got in right away. Now, it seems, she’ll have to wait.


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Linda says she feels like she was lied to, and doesn’t want to go anymore: “Well, I thought about it, then I changed my mind after I realized what they, you know, made an asshole of their self, you know, I just said, well I ain’t going. The hell with it.”


When an outreach officer goes to the Thursday morning pickup, he intakes people on a first-come, first-serve basis, according to the date of their referral. He might have five people assigned to arrive at 9:00, five more at 9:01, and so on. If you’re late to your assigned time, even if you have a referral in hand, you may not get on the bus. Sometimes, even those who are on time aren’t able to go. Officer Ritch, the downtown outreach officer, says he’s had some of the same people coming every Thursday for the last two to three months. He thinks that Linda might have just missed her chance if she left to dispose of her wagon: “I don’t know if she showed up or not, there might be thirty people out there. That day, I had six openings.” I’ll be riding along with Officer Ritch on this week’s Thursday pickup.


Officer Ritch knows Linda and Bobby from their long residence downtown, and remembers


when they used to live at Pinellas Hope. He says he wants to help them get back in, but that Bobby will have to clean up his act. It’s not unusual for him to take someone to a detox facility before taking them to the campgrounds. Sheila says she’s going to contact Officer Ritch to try to get Bobby into a detox facility, and Linda back in Tent City, even though it seems neither of them want to come at this point.


“If you’ve been on the streets a long time, sometimes it takes a lot of times to make it work,” she says, “And you have to be forgiving and you have to be wiling to keep trying.”

She tells me she’s 57 years old and mostly deaf, ineligible for Medicaid and unable to work because of her learning disability. A slew of other medical problems keeps her in perpetual discomfort and prevents her from sleeping comfortably. Linda Mariano has wanted to get off the streets since she landed on them seven years ago. And she did get off the streets—twice.

Right now she’s waiting for Gulfcoast Legal Services to give her notice on a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) appeal, since she was turned down for the service two months ago. They tell her it’s going to take a year and a half to get her into court because they’re so backed up with claims.

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