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Homeless cling to trappings of better days

The newly homeless often surrender their old lifestyles item by item. As jobs and houses slip away, they cling to their clothes, cars and cell phones. Some fight to hold on to even the smallest status symbols.

It is their last stand.

A Land O'Lakes mother wouldn't part with her neighborhood after a foreclosure forced her out of the area. She continued to let her kids take the bus to their old community after school.

After a South Tampa woman lost her job and depleted her savings, she went to the Salvation Army for help. She showed up with one of the few items she couldn't bring herself to sell: a BMW.

Another mother called the Pasco school district looking for help. She would accept it under one condition: don't label her homeless.

In 2009, the state counted approximately 20,000 homeless people in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Aid organizations who work with struggling families in the area say they have noticed an increase in the number attempting to keep lifestyles they can no longer afford.

"People are having a hard time letting go," said Althea Hudson, who works with homeless students in Pinellas. "They're in withdrawal."

A change in address didn't translate to a change in attitude for Andrea Rodrigues, 41. The Land O'Lakes mother of five said that when her rental home fell into foreclosure, the family began moving between shelters and motels.

Rodrigues jammed all of her possessions — Gymboree clothes, her son's Tony Hawk bike, a bedroom set — into three storage units. Even as her dollars dwindled, she was hesitant to part with her possessions.

"It's not worth it," she said, for the few dollars she would make selling her stuff online.

Some newly homeless are in denial. Like the woman who drove to the Salvation Army in her black BMW, complete with a black leather interior and a sun roof.

She lost her job, spent her savings and couldn't find work, said Maggie Rogers, housing programs manager at the Salvation Army in Tampa. But she didn't consider herself homeless until she saw the paperwork to prove it.

Living at the Salvation Army, the woman finally found a job and learned to better budget her money. The moral, Rogers said, was that "the Nine West shoes are not the most important thing."

And the BMW?

The woman, who talked to a reporter but declined to have her name printed for fear of embarrassment, sold it — reluctantly — and learned to take the bus, Rogers said.

Homeless coordinators in the Pasco and Pinellas school districts have also seen cases of embarrassment and denial. Families hesitate to ask for help. They fear the label of "homeless."

Erika Remsberg, homeless liaison for Pasco County schools, remembers a mother who called because her family was struggling.

The mother wouldn't take the free lunch offered to everyone entering the Students in Transition Program, Remsberg said.

"Is there any way you can help me without calling me homeless?" she asked.

Employees at relief organizations understand that asking for help can be embarrassing. They also know that, in the end, survival always trumps shame.

Mary Washington, 41, understands that homelessness can happen to anyone, but that doesn't make the reality any easier. The mother of eight had a good job as a negotiator at a financial company. She never struggled to pay her $1,250 a month rent for her Valrico home. But when Washington's company shut down, she couldn't pay the bills. The landlord evicted the family.

Washington and her daughter called agencies looking for help, but "everywhere you go, doors just slammed in your face," she said.

After dozens of calls, Washington found work at a call center. The pay, several dollars an hour less than what she previously had earned, was enough to keep the family in the mobile home they temporarily called home.

But the challenges kept mounting. Washington lost her rental car. Then electrical problems forced the family out of the mobile home. For now, they live in a motel, accommodations she can't afford for long.

"It's terrifying," Washington said. "It's scary that we could be one of the families living under a bridge or in the woods in a tent."

At one point, Washington said, she had criteria for her living conditions. She wanted to be in a safe neighborhood with good schools.

Now, she just wants a roof over her head.

Sarah Hutchins can be reached at shutchins@sptimes.com.

Homeless cling to trappings of better days 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 11:22pm]

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