The problem that can't be swept away

Will the homelessness problem in Tampa Bay get worse before it gets better?

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Snyder of the PCCH says the Homeless Leadership Network, charged with implementing the 10 Year Plan, is already working on getting more emergency shelter beds, but it's a long process.

"We can't build a new building overnight," she says. "And we can't take over an old building without the money to rehab it."

And as far as opening city bathrooms for 24-hour use, another one of Wright's demands, St. Pete Councilman Jamie Bennett says police have reservations about keeping existing bathrooms open. He says the restroom buildings are built in such a way that inhibits visibility, which could make them havens of crime.

"If we had the money to build new ones, we would," he adds.

The bathroom issue shows that it could take some time before city governments embrace even the smaller goals of the 10 Year Plan.

"As in all politics, it takes time," says Bennett, who is also chair of the Homeless Leadership Network. "I know there's a lot of frustration with the advocates. But the longer that we're out there and [other elected officials] see the good work we're doing, the easier it will be for them to jump all over it."

In the meantime, will Tampa Bay's homeless situation get worse before it gets better?

"It's already gotten worse before it's gotten better," says HCHC's Weikel. "The economic situation for service workers has not improved. It's gotten worse. People can't afford housing. It definitely could get worse before it gets better."

Back in Pinellas Park, the soup kitchen is closing and John Harper packs up his few clothes and an apple to make the long trek to his place in the woods. He admits that a trip to the gas station for a few beers is inevitable.

"I have to have a couple drinks at night to go to sleep," he says and then somewhat defensively adds, "You're sleeping in the woods!"

Harper, originally from Scotland, says he is a former engineer who put two kids through college on his $80,000 salary. But then his wife died and he spiraled into depression and drinking. He moved to Louisiana to dredge canals for years until Hurricane Katrina hit. He says his whole crew, living on the canal, was stranded in the Louisiana swamps. Two of his co-workers died. He moved to Pinellas Park afterwards, in search of something new.

Now Harper is stuck in the cycle of day labor: He wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m., washes up at a gas station and heads down to one of the day labor offices, sitting around drinking coffee until a job comes up. Some days there is no work, and he wanders the streets. But even if he's hired onto a job, he rarely makes more than $40 a day. Between the drinking and other homeless robbing him, he is never able to save anything. And where would he put it anyway?

"It's pretty horrendous sometimes," he admits. "I stay alone and I drink alone."

He says some halfway houses and a savings account would help. Maybe a work program that saves some of the money for him. For those who ask if his family would help him, he gets indignant.

"What am I going to say to my children?" he says. "That I'm homeless? That I'm living in the woods?"

Between the police and the people who sneer at him on the street, Harper wishes people could understand that homelessness is not a choice — it's a hole that keeps getting deeper.

"You try living out here for a week without anything," he says, almost pleading. "Living with nothing."

On his way out of the mission, Harper's plastic bag rips. He doesn't say a word, gathers up his few belongings, tries to tie it back together, gives up and continues heading down Park Boulevard.

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