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Clearwater's Homeless Emergency Project offers help to those in need

CLEARWATER

Frank Padilla is polite, well-spoken and friendly — the kind of guy you'd invite to a backyard barbecue.

He's also homeless.

Since April, Padilla, his wife, Laura, and their three young children — Xavier, Justice and Miracle — have been living at the Homeless Emergency Project, commonly known as HEP, in Clearwater, a sprawling complex covering five blocks on N Betty Lane.

The shelter provides emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing to people in need, including veterans.

"If you would have told me a year ago we'd be living in a homeless shelter, I would have laughed," said Padilla, 40.

The Padillas were hit by a series of circumstances not uncommon among America's working class, who often live paycheck to paycheck.

Their troubles began about 18 months ago when Padilla, a licensed air conditioning specialist, was working as a waiter to earn some extra income.

He slipped on a wet kitchen floor, injured his back and was unable to work for months.

"I never have not been able to provide for my family," he said.

Their savings were minimal; Padilla had recently helped to pay his ailing mother's medical bills.

"We were trying to live on the $213 a month I got from workman's compensation," he said. "After a while, you're having to choose between diapers and food — and that's a problem."

When they couldn't continue to make monthly payments on the home they were renting, they moved into a motel and put all of their belongings into storage.

When they couldn't pay the bill on the storage unit, the facility kept the goods.

"Our marriage license, birth certificates, baby books, family photos — all gone," he said.

• • •

In a sense, the Padillas are among the lucky ones. Because of a series of qualifying factors, they were accepted into HEP's Baty Villas, a 16-unit apartment building that offers long-term stays, typically about two years, for families in trouble. They pay a nominal fee.

There's a surge in the number of homeless families with children, said Mary Burley, the family case manager at HEP.

"I turned away three families this morning," she said one day in mid December. "Right now, there is just no place for these people to go. There's just so little affordable housing."

In 2007, the number of people served by HEP was 1,600. This year, the number has nearly tripled — to 4,491 as of Dec. 11.

• • •

On Thanksgiving Day, Mark McManus stood on the access road at NE Coachman Road and U.S. 19 N. He held up a piece of paper that read: "Homeless, Hungry, Happy Thanksgiving."

He had a couple of gift cards for food in his pocket, but the restaurants were closed for the holiday.

It wasn't always this way.

McManus, 47, a licensed massage therapist, said he once made a six-figure income.

That evaporated as the economy took a tumble and clients could no longer afford his services. The bank foreclosed on his $350,000 home, and his car was repossessed, he said.

He lived in a Super 8 Motel on U.S. 19 N and played a guitar on the street for tips.

"I went from 215 to 171 pounds in 30 days," he said. "I was focused on survival."

Then he found out about HEP. He has been staying there for a few weeks while he figures out what to do next.

"I am so grateful for this family and what it's done for me," he said. "They've provided not only food, shelter, clothing, but worship."

• • •

HEP, a nonprofit organization, is a charitable outreach of Everybody's Tabernacle, which has been helping the community since the 1960s, when the late Rev. Otis Green began doling out food and clothing to the poor.

Today, his wife, Barbara Green, is the president and chief executive officer of HEP.

The 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shelter provides an array of services: mental and substance abuse counseling, a free dental clinic, transportation, basic skills training, after-school tutoring and a summer camp for children.

"We address the physical, emotional and mental needs of every child and adult we are seeing," said Libby Stone, vice president of development.

The 300-bed facility will provide about 90,000 meals this year.

Joy Lockinour, 30, lost her job in August because of government cuts in spending, she said. She was an administrative assistant for an assisted living facility serving developmentally disabled adults.

Eventually, she was living out of her silver Ford Explorer; she sent her son to stay with a relative in Mississippi.

She remembers what it was like to take a hot shower and have her first real meal in weeks after she found HEP.

"I felt human again," she said. "Now I have hope for the future."

Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com

How to help

The Homeless Emergency Project accepts contributions of food, clothing, money and household items. Call (727) 442-9041 or visit www.ethep.org Donations are accepted at the shelter at 1120 N. Betty Lane in Clearwater.

fAST FACTS

How to help

The Homeless Emergency Project, 1120 N Betty Lane, Clearwater, accepts contributions of food, clothing, money and household items. Call (727) 442-9041 or visit www.ethep.org.

Clearwater's Homeless Emergency Project offers help to those in need 12/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, January 2, 2009 3:57pm]

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