Bowen: From nearly homeless to homeless advocate

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
 Pasco County has 100 homeless camps, according to the Pasco Sheriff's Office and in January, volunteers counted 2,512 homeless people here including 418 considered chronically homeless. Trying to curb those numbers is the job of Don Anderson, the new executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Pasco County has 100 homeless camps, according to the Pasco Sheriff's Office and in January, volunteers counted 2,512 homeless people here including 418 considered chronically homeless. Trying to curb those numbers is the job of Don Anderson, the new executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.
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The sign on the door is the first indication this isn’t your run-of-the-mill house tucked away on Pine Street in the city of New Port Richey.

Shower hours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, it reads.

This isn’t a gym, though people used to come here to get healthy when it was a charity medical clinic. Nor is it a YMCA or a boarding house, but people do arrive seeking a roof over their heads.

It is the headquarters of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County and the guy occupying the executive director’s desk in the corner office was in just his fourth day on the job when we talked.

Don Anderson’s new digs include tents stored under a table, a window view of the trailer containing the portable showers for the homeless, and a frame on the wall holding the business cards from his career.

He held two dozen job titles in the private-sector world of business technology companies that included mergers, acquisitions and a $9 billion bankruptcy. He turned to human services work with nonprofit agencies earlier this decade after deciding he wanted to do something more meaningful. Jobs with Metropolitan Ministries and Youth and Family Alternatives preceded his recent hiring by the coalition.

One of Anderson’s immediate tasks involves both sales and social work. He must persuade the peeved neighbors and a reluctant county commissioner that a former Boys & Girls Club headquarters on Youth Lane is an appropriate location for a one-stop homeless navigation center. If approved, it will shelter people temporarily while providing wrap-around services like case management, life-skills, job training and other help to move people from the street to affordable housing.

Residents of the Crane’s Roost neighborhood have expressed a fear of rising crime if the homeless take shelter nearby, while Commissioner Jack Mariano thinks the county should put the center elsewhere.

Perhaps, Anderson, 59, can share with them some of his own life experiences. Like growing up an only child in Johnstown, Pennsylvania to a dad who didn’t finish eighth grade and a mom who stopped going to school because she didn’t have shoes to wear. Her family moved as many as 30 to 40 times, Anderson said, and at one time lived in a chicken coop.

His father worked three jobs as a bus driver, courier and night watchman, but Anderson said he remembers sitting with his parents at the end of every month as they figured out which bills not to pay so they could cover the rent. They ate packages of food that arrived anonymously on the door step.

Or he can tell the skeptics about his first wife – a woman he said was brilliant who grew up affluent and became a success in business. Yet, she was an addict and an alcoholic after a bad outcome from surgery led to her using painkillers and eventually street drugs. He had her arrested and raised their two children alone while they remained estranged. (He has remarried and said his first wife is nearing three years of sobriety.)

The stories carry a simple message, really. Being on the brink of homelessness or being overwhelmed by substance abuse — frequently a precursor to losing your home — can happen to anybody. Even to hard-working people punching in at three jobs or to successful people born into money.

Look around Pasco County.

Certainly there are pockets of affluence in Trinity, Land O’Lakes and Wesley Chapel, but the United Way reports 42 percent of Pasco’s households are living either in poverty or below the basic cost of living, known by the acronym ALICE for asset limited, income constrained, employed. It’s a fancy way of saying "working poor.’’ In Pasco that’s nearly 81,000 households.

Then there are the people who’ve lost their households. The county has approximately 100 homeless camps, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

Eleven months ago, volunteers counted 2,512 homeless people in the county including 418 considered chronically homeless. Additionally, the school district estimated there were 565 unsheltered children.

Think any of these people might benefit from a navigation center?

Anderson’s introduction to helping the homeless came during his business career. Like many parents, his volunteer work had leaned toward Little League or teaching Sunday school, but a client challenged him to give back more to the community. He ended up spending a year as a volunteer counselor for the homeless at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa.

"I didn’t want to do it,’’ he acknowledged. "I thought, ‘What can I do to help a homeless person?’ ’’

He assisted them with things like getting bus passes or proper identification or arranging for them to get emergency dental care.

"And it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever done,’’ Anderson said.

It’s an imperative point. Perhaps others can learn from his background.

Don Anderson, the guy heading the Homeless Coalition of Pasco County, had to overcome his own initial reluctance to assisting the homeless before finding success at it.

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