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Resident of Safe Harbor homeless shelter finds his purpose with a paintbrush

The Foreman paints slowly. After each swipe down the spine of what will be a philodendron, he dips his brush back into the plastic tub. His leaves are the brightest on the shelter's long block wall. // The Foreman sits while other residents stand. He is in this for the long haul. This Friday morning, he pulled a blue chair from the day room into the dingy hall. // Now it's almost 1 p.m. He has been painting for three hours. He frames one more fern, fills in another man-sized leaf, then stands up to examine his art. // His tongue pokes out in concentration. He cocks his head and squints. And he forgets, for a while, that his world has no windows. He sees only the yellow background — 15 gallons of donated paint that substitute for sunshine in here. And the emerald plants he is painting to simulate life. // "Everything used to be just blank, institutionalized, dirty white walls with nothing to look at," he says. He waves his left hand, which is smudged with green paint. "Now things are starting to brighten up." The homeless shelter, he says, "is becoming more homey."

His name is Craig Connell. He's 50 years old. He has two teenage sons he hasn't seen in years, a woman he wants to prove he is worthy of, and a 9-month-old son — the reason he is struggling to stay sober. // He has been a cook in the Marine Corps, a clerk at a Sunoco gas station. For 18 years, he followed carnivals from Ohio to Oregon, making funnel cakes.

Here at the homeless shelter, they call him "the Foreman." Because he has been at Pinellas Safe Harbor for eight months — twice as long as the average stay, longer than almost all the other 317 residents.

And because he is the only resident who has been involved in the mural from the beginning.

"A few weeks ago, my counselor told me they were going to paint the walls and I thought, 'Man, they need that!' " he says. "Then I thought, instead of lying around here soaking up what people are giving me, I could do something to give back."

Connell had never done anything artistic. He had no idea how much he would enjoy creating something from nothing, something that might last. In his transient existence, the project is giving him a sense of permanence.

He works six hours a day, two days a week — whenever the real artist comes. She gave him his nickname. And a reason not to rush.

At the northern edge of St. Petersburg, at the southern foot of the Bayside Bridge, Pinellas Safe Harbor sits on 49th Street inside an old jail annex. The shelter opened in January 2011 and houses up to 470 people. Some sleep on inflatable mats outside, under a metal roof, until they have earned their way inside.

Once they're in, residents have to go through a metal detector, past a guard and half a dozen video monitors, then turn down the long, windowless hall that dissects the building. They stay in one of four pods, working up from mats to bunk beds — with pillows. Three pods are filled with men; about 100 women live in the fourth.

The floors are bare cement. Metal lockers line one wall. The other wall was empty.

Until April 9.

"We had talked about this for more than a year. Rhonda Abbott, who oversees the city's homeless services, asked me to find someone to come paint a mural in the shelter," says Elizabeth Brincklow, arts and international relations manager for the city of St. Petersburg. "I wanted someone who would work with the residents and help them paint whatever they wanted on their walls."

Brincklow budgeted $5,000, got an anonymous donor to contribute the paint, and brought in artist Pam Miles, who has taught at the Morean Arts Center, Creative Clay and St. Petersburg College. That first week in April, Miles met with seven residents who wanted to help — including Connell.

"They wanted something soothing, something organic and sunny," Miles says.

She carried philodendrons and ferns into the shelter so residents could sketch from real plants. She chalked their drawings onto the wall, then handed each of them a brush.

About 20 people have helped paint the mural so far. But no one has been at it longer than Connell.

"When I get here, he's waiting. And he never takes a break or leaves for a job interview," Miles says. "It seems to give him a sort of purpose."

Ask Connell about himself and he shrugs. What is there to tell? He shuffles his sneakers, stares at his feet, busts out a nervous belly laugh.

Then he picks up his brush, dips it into the paint and adds a long vein snaking through the leaf's center.

"I lived mostly on the road," he says while he paints. "Cooking with carnivals. When I stayed put it was always in Ohio."

Seven years ago, he came to Florida to see his sister and her kids. He stayed with them, got a job at a gas station, fell in love with the woman he wanted to marry.

But she wouldn't marry him. "I have a problem," Connell says. "Marijuana, cocaine, pills — that's what split us up."

When he learned she was pregnant, Connell tried to get clean. "I did," he says, shaking his head. "I did try."

He says he lost his job last fall. His sister moved back to Ohio. "I stayed here to be with the baby," he says. "But I couldn't find work, and I didn't have any money. And I got sick — hepatitis."

He slept in dark parks, ate sandwiches some church people handed him. Then someone told him about Pinellas Safe Harbor. If you're not a sex offender and you're willing to be in bed by 10 p.m., you can stay there while counselors help you get back on your feet.

For eight months, Connell says, he has been clean. He has worked his way up from sleeping outside to having his own bunk in Pod 4 — the working man's pod. Many of his roommates have jobs and bus passes and lives outside the shelter.

But Connell isn't looking for work. He is hoping to qualify for disability income, but for now, subsists solely on food stamps — and donated meals. He seldom ventures outside the windowless walls.

The Foreman fills in another philodendron. Two coats, thick and neat.

In six hours, he has brightened 3 feet of the endless hallway.

"After we finish here, we're going to paint all the pods, too," he says. He scoots back his chair and stands, points with his paintbrush at each doorway. "Fish in there. Turtles in that one. Flowers for the ladies."

His own pod will be painted last. "Birds, like flying into a new beginning."

He wants that, for himself, someday: another chance, a house or apartment, the woman he still loves and his 9-month-old son, Gaige.

But for now, this is enough: these sunshine walls that are slowly springing to life, some peanut butter and jelly stashed in Locker No. 70, and a bunk in Pod 4 — where soon egrets will soar.

"I'm guessing it will take about six months to finish all the walls," he says. "But I hope it takes longer. They told me they'll let me stay here until it's all done."

The Foreman paints slowly, because he is buying time.

"I watch people come and go, move out and move on," he says. He sits down, dips his brush into the green and starts another leaf. "But I think of this as home now.

"It's the first place that's really been mine in a long time."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at ldegregory@tampabay.com.

Resident of Safe Harbor homeless shelter finds his purpose with a paintbrush 04/27/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 29, 2012 2:29am]
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