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Helpful homeless man honored as city names shelter for him

TARPON SPRINGS — For the last 20 years, James "Shakey" Burnett has served food at soup kitchens and worked to get sleeping bags for the homeless.

Burnett, 60, has cooked, mopped floors at church shelters and cleaned soiled bathrooms.

"He is one of those people who gives back more than he takes," said Tom Henderson, board chairman of the Tarpon Alliance for Humanity. "He's always been kind of the watchdog in the (homeless) community."

The work has not gone unnoticed.

That's why city officials have named Tarpon Springs' cold night shelter after Burnett. Located at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Tarpon Avenue, the James "Shakey" Burnett Cold Night Shelter is available in frigid weather from Nov. 15 to March 15. The shelter opens when temperatures drop below 40 degrees.

"I just believe that if you help somebody, somebody's going to help you," Burnett said. "It might not come when you want it, but it comes."

Known as Shakey to all, Burnett has needed help himself. Since he arrived in Florida three decades ago, he has been homeless.

• • •

Shakey is from Greenville, S.C. When he was 34, he was involved in a car accident that messed up his neck and spine. He was paralyzed for nine months and had to learn how to walk again. His right collarbone never mended properly even though it was broken and reset twice.

He did learn to walk again, but not without an extremely noticeable shake, thus the name Shakey.

"I would go to try and get work and they would see me shaking so bad, they wouldn't want to hire me, or they would keep me on for a few a months and let me go," he said. "They didn't want to take a chance on something happening to me on a site."

Shakey worked as a cook in the North Carolina mountains. He ran rides at a carnival in Gainesville, Ga. He painted houses in Johnston, Tenn., and picked oranges and grapefruit in Lake Wales.

"I was not good at that," Shakey said, his voice raspy and sometimes barely at whisper, of picking Florida fruit. "I came to Clearwater. I had a good friend in Clearwater that I looked up and I started working out of the labor hall."

Working for $30 a day as a day laborer made paying rent difficult. Wooded areas in Pasco and Pinellas counties became Shakey's home. He would sleep in small tented camps and outside of churches at night.

About 15 years ago, one of those churches was St. Timothy's.

"He just came up one day and asked what he could do to help," said Chris Klafs, who heads a team at St. Timothy's that cooks every Thursday for about 200 of the area's homeless. "I was new and needed Shakey's strength at the time. He was called the Godfather of the homeless.

"He very seldom raised his voice, but he just had the respect of the others from the street, to the gutters to the pastors of the churches."

With Shakey's help, Klafs would become "Mom" to the area's needy. The name is a sign of their respect for her, Klafs said. Shakey agrees.

If a person became disruptive during a meal, Shakey gave them an ultimatum: straighten up or get out. If a new homeless person came to the area, Shakey made sure he had a meal, or a sleeping bag. On cold nights, he rounded up the homeless and directed them to the correct location for a hot meal and place to sleep.

"Sometimes, we do stereotype someone who is homeless and the mentality is that all they do is take, and with Shakey that's not true," said Wanda Weber, executive director of Tarpon Springs Shepherd Center that feeds the homeless every day at five different locations. "Shakey has always been there to help. No matter what I needed."

The one thing that Shakey said he's never done is panhandle. He's cut grass, painted buildings, put shelves in new stores and cut tree limbs.

"I've never stood and asked for money with the hope of not having to do some work for it," Shakey said. "Everybody in the town trusts me."

Two years ago, Klafs noticed that Shakey wasn't looking like himself. She convinced him to see a doctor. It was throat cancer.

• • •

Most of the cancer was cut out, but Shakey said there is still some there.

He went through radiation and chemotherapy and at times had to be fed through a feeding tube. It's been a year since he's used the tube, but it's still dangling from his stomach.

"I don't know why it's not out," Shakey said. "I went to a doctor and they said I needed a primary (doctor). Then a friend died and I just haven't had it taken out. Somebody is supposed to take me somewhere, to a doctor, next week I think."

As a result of the cancer, Shakey can only eat soft foods and in small amounts. Deep unexpected coughs often overtake his conversations. A half pint of red wine, usually Wild Irish Rose, helps his shakes better than any prescribed medication, he said. He now lives in the apartment of a couple he cared for before their deaths earlier this year.

Shakey's resolve is simple.

"You can't go through life feeling sorry for yourself," he said. "But when you help others in the smallest way, it comes back to you. Something always comes along when you think you are at your weakest point."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at or (727) 445-4174

Helpful homeless man honored as city names shelter for him 12/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 8:39pm]
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