Visit with homeless Veterans in Pinellas
Tuesday 18 DEC, was an exceptional day in my service to Florida Veterans; I was picked up at my Largo office by the Chief Operating Officer of Catholic Charities (Diocese of St. Petersburg), and her driver, Sister Pam....., but first, some statistical background:
There are currently at least 6000 homeless Veterans in Florida, 1400 of whom inhabit Hillsborough (the highest homeless population in Florida); the second largest homeless population in Florida is Pinellas County (est. 900).
Our first visit was to Mercy House in Tampa, a new homeless shelter for women, mothers, and children. The rooms were small, functional, and clean. Most of the residents were away at work, or in school. While this did not afford much interaction with residents, the drive provided valuable insights on the social dimensions of homelessness through the experiences of my two hostesses, who have labored in social services all their adult lives.
Our next stop was Pinellas Hope, a homeless encampment of 225 tents (3 blks west of the intersection of 49th Street and 126th Avenue) in north St. Petersburg,.....such a site having opened just 16 days before, all supervised by my hostess! Having read of an ugly confrontation between the City Police and the homeless in their downtown tent city in St. Petersburg in the past year, I was not prepared for what I saw on this site, i.e.
The 11 acres were donated by a local philantropist, on the edge of some wetlands, which added some pleasant isolation. A pre-sited tent and sleeping bag were provided each accepted resident, and there are communal showers, latrines, an assembly tent, and five computers for all to use. The residents are free to leave during the day, but the 10:30 pm curfew is strictly enforced. A Sheriff's Deputy assigned to the homeless is on duty; he stated there has been very little trouble in the preceeding 16 days of Pinellas Hope's existence.
We took a walk-thru of the whole property then came back to the communal tent to meet with 17 homeless Veterans who responded to the advanced notice of my visit. I asked each to recite his service affiliation, then I told them mine, about my job, and invited them to contact me for Veterans benefits. Included in the group were one woman, a sniper in Vietnam, two admitted felons, a nuclear submariner, a licensed electrician,......all polite, respectful, and appreciative. I gave out my card and invited them to contact me for help with USDVA and FDVA benefits. A Catholic priest came by to check on their progress.
As we departed, my hostess asked me to encourage the Governor to visit them for even just a few minutes on a near-future visit to Pinellas, since Pinellas Hope is within a mile of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. That is why I sent this note to you. I think it would be worthy of the Governor's consideration very soon.
/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr. EXDIR, FDVA