Florida still draws folks down on their luck looking for a new start

Tyson Bramlett, 60, packed his van with clothing, food and an air mattress before leaving Tennessee in hopes of finding work here.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Tyson Bramlett, 60, packed his van with clothing, food and an air mattress before leaving Tennessee in hopes of finding work here.

By the numbers

42.8 Percent of homeless adults with mental illness, substance abuse and various disabling conditions.

67 Percent of people who became homeless after moving to Pinellas County.

Source: Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless

A few days before Thanksgiving, 60-year-old Tyson Bramlett left Nashville on a quest for a job and new life in Florida.

In his green Dodge Caravan, he stashed an air mattress, four boxes of saltines, a giant jar of peanut butter and a few changes of clothing. He had about $200 in cash.

By the time he arrived in Pinellas County, most of the money was gone and with no place to sleep or bathe, little to eat and a car running on fumes, he decided to find out where he could sell a pint of blood.

Those who work with the homeless say Bramlett's experience is not unusual, though the number of people heading to the Sunshine State with a pittance and a mountain of hope appears to be steadying.

"I am constantly amazed that even in this economic climate that people are still coming down here looking for work,'' said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

The most recent count showed that on any given day in Pinellas County 6,235 men, women, and children are homeless. Almost 7 percent had been here less than a month, 4 percent less than three months and about 31 percent more than three months and less than a year.

"A lot of these folks came down with employment or thought they had employment or came down here because of family,'' Snyder said.

For newcomers who fall on hard times, it can be tough finding a shelter to take them in.

"We are at capacity,'' said St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz, who heads the city's homeless outreach program.

"We can't handle our own folks who have been here 10, 15 years."

Why Florida?

"I thought if I wound up homeless, at least I would end up in a warm climate,'' Bramlett said, echoing the sentiments of others who found their way to the state.

Perhaps complicating matters for Bramlett are what his Tennessee family euphemistically refers to as his "problems.''

Pinellas County has several organizations that help mentally ill homeless people, including Directions for Mental Health, Boley Centers and Suncoast Center, Snyder said. The problem, say Bramlett's worried family, is that he doesn't want help.

"He doesn't think there's anything wrong with him. He's in another world,'' his brother Al Bramlett said.

He said his brother grew up in a family of two boys and two girls in Oldfort, Tenn. He was smart, but a loner. He attended Tennessee Tech and planned to major in aeronautical engineering. He married in his early 30s, had a son and later learned about a second son with an old college girlfriend. At one point, he operated a convenience store and owned a restaurant. Relatives say he had a nervous breakdown about 10 years ago after being badly burned in a grease fire and losing a sum of money he'd sunk into the restaurant business.

Al Bramlett said he later hired his brother to help him bury telephone and power cable in Georgia.

"When he was working with me, he did a good job,'' he said.

When work dried up, his brother moved back to Tennessee and lived with the son who'd found him in the early 1990s. That was the home he left before Thanksgiving.

During an interview at the Seminole Community Library, Bramlett talked eagerly about celebrities he said he'd socialized with, dropping names like Jackie Kennedy, Frankie Avalon, Naomi Judd and the two Bush presidents. The memories — he calls them snapshots — of these encounters surfaced only about six years ago, he said.

"I tried to tell my family about this stuff and they didn't' believe it,'' he said.

Since his arrival in Pinellas, he had been dodging police in his search for a place to sleep, he said.

"Everywhere I've been, they've found me. The last two nights, I've hardly had any sleep. I've just been going from parking lot to parking lot,'' he said a week ago.

That morning he got a $281 ticket for speeding in a school zone.

Bramlett had gotten in touch with the St. Petersburg Times after reading an article about the homeless.

"I am coming to Tampa, Florida to try to get a job,'' he wrote in a Nov. 22 e-mail. "Can you tell me where I might go to park my van and have access to a shower and a way to wash clothes until I can find a job and get settled into an apartment or house?'' Tuesday, he'd found shelter at the Salvation Army.

Sometimes, when Florida dreams fall through, Daystar Life Center in downtown St. Petersburg can help. It runs a Travelers Aid program that helps people get home to family and friends.

"We primarily use Greyhound. We do some gas. We research to see where they are going, what resources they have, who is receiving them on the other end,'' said Daystar executive director Jane Trocheck Walker.

Many times, Walker said, relatives are grateful to get a call about their loved ones and accept responsibility of their homecoming.

In Bramlett's case, his family learned about his whereabouts from the Times. They're relieved, but whether he can be welcomed back home is another matter.

"He's my brother and it's breaking my heart,'' his brother said. "We've basically done everything we can do for him.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Florida still draws folks down on their luck looking for a new start 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 4:19pm]

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