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Pinellas Hope lifts spirits at a difficult time of year

CLEARWATER

Catfish straightens the branches of an artificial Christmas tree, which is flat in all the wrong places.

If you'd been in a box all year, he reasons, you'd be flat too.

This one, next to the ramp leading up to a common area, will be heavily scrutinized, so it needs to look good. It might pick up some spirits.

"Everybody is on edge during the holidays," says Catfish, whose real name is Matt Legnini.

At Pinellas Hope, most of the 300 or so residents live in 10-by-10-foot tents. They shop for clothing from the camp's collection. Their bags are searched at the gate.

While lights go up and carols are sung, the men and women in this homeless relocation camp are reminded of what they've lost. They get angry. They get sad.

"You can't help but think about it during the holidays," he says.

Catfish thinks that if the decorations look good, they might help.

"It'll perk up the mood around here twentyfold."

• • •

Most days, David Duggan, 52, helps sort through donations near the entrance to the camp.

Twice a week, he wears an outfit he assembled from the clothing bank — a striped polo, red cargo shorts, red and white socks, and sunglasses from TGI Fridays in the same pattern. They call him Candy Man. He's a walking distraction.

"You're not thinking about your car payment, you're not thinking about your house, you're not thinking about the tent," he says. "You're not thinking about what you're going to eat, you're not thinking about anything except laughing for the 10 or 15 or 20 seconds, however long the laugh is."

In April, Duggan's girlfriend of 13 years, Susan, was found dead in a St. Petersburg canal. He moved out of the mobile home they shared and, carrying a bag of clothes and her ashes, arrived at Pinellas Hope.

Run by Catholic Charities, Pinellas Hope was founded in 2007. About 300 residents live in the camp. Once admitted, they get 90 days of counseling, access to education and three meals a day.

"You take food, you take a place in line — take, take, take," Duggan says. "You've got to give."

Most live in tents. Some are in small enclosures, called casitas, that look like sheds. There's a section of sturdier structures for the sick.

Dressing up the camp means dragging out boxes of donated decorations.

"What you have to understand is, they're angry, they're upset," says Keith Walker, 39. "It comes with this time of year."

The holidays bring a reminder of friends and family that can't be reached, gifts that can't be given, and the inability to celebrate in many of the ways people think of as traditional, says Leanne Rivlin, an environmental psychologist who worked extensively with homeless men and women in New York.

"It's just a very tangible reminder that (their) life is different from those of other people," Rivlin said.

So Duggan's red and white outfit, the Christmas lights, and special holiday meals put on by Pinellas Hope are small things the people here use to inspire joy in others, and to quiet the sadness in themselves.

• • •

The tree is still unruly.

There are five others to straighten and decorate, and lights to hang, and some peeling ornaments in a plastic box that need to be sorted. In the storage area around the corner, one of the casitas holds more decorations.

Catfish opens the door and pulls out a secret: 3-foot-tall statues of Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men.

He'll put them near the front, in a baby tent. He imagines the new arrivals. He has watched them see this brightening of the landscape before.

"Their mood really changes," he says. "It's quite visible."

When they wake up, they'll find it. A little nod to the way they live, for the ones spending their first Christmas in Pinellas Hope.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Pinellas Hope lifts spirits at a difficult time of year 12/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 17, 2013 4:07pm]
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