After dropping out of Northeast High School in the ninth grade, Dan Quaid floated between low-wage jobs, trailers and friends' couches. Drinking and partying always trumped stability. When he lost a carpet-laying job last year, he camped in the woods for several weeks, ate out of trash bins and became a statistic — one of the Tampa Bay area's 20,000 or so homeless people. ¶ But hitting bottom at age 40 may prove Quaid's salvation. He's working again, cooking and cleaning floors at a Burger King long into the night. He bikes for hours in the morning through industrial mid Pinellas County, combing Dumpsters for scrap metal to sell. ¶ In the past, he says, "I would have hung out and drank.'' ¶ Now he is saving money, feels good about himself and hopes to rent a house soon. ¶ It took a woman named Evelyn and a 13-acre haven in the middle of nowhere to change his course.
Homelessness is one of the most intractable problems in America. Cities from Key West to Seattle struggle to cope with ragged people who inspire both empathy and revulsion — a dollar handed out a car window, an ordinance passed to keep them out of sight.
How much help to extend, or how little, becomes a civic balancing act. Cities don't want to become magnets.
Miami-Dade County taxes restaurant food and beverage to finance shelter and assistance. San Francisco once offered cash — as much as $420 a month, but now the mayor is pushing for one of the nation's strictest bans on sidewalk sleeping.
The Tampa Bay area is an epicenter. Its warm climate and urban setting draw people by the thousands, camping in woods and under bridges. In St. Petersburg, particularly, relations with the citizenry are complex and uneasy.
The downtown offers inviting parks, a soup kitchen and free clinic all within a few blocks. But million-dollar condos and sidewalk cafes mesh poorly with grocery carts and thrift store clothing. Laws limit panhandling, public sleeping, even how many belongings people can carry.
Tensions erupted in January 2007.
Squatters had formed makeshift tent communities along Fourth Avenue N. The city cited them for code violations and ordered them to leave. When they refused, police moved in, ripping up some tents and slashing others.
Nationwide scorn branded St. Petersburg as a city without a heart.
As the next winter approached, Catholic Charities offered a stopgap alternative they called Pinellas Hope: 13 acres near Ulmerton Road and 49th Street that the diocese was holding for a future cemetery.
The diocese would set up tents, feed people and provide services. In return, they just wanted financial help for six months.
But "Tent City'' — as the homeless call it — never shut down. It mushroomed into the county's primary way station for the downtrodden, the first option for getting people off the streets.
The idea is to nurture a limited number of sober people until they can branch out on their own. It has attracted international attention for its unusual combination of so many tents with a high degree of services.
Tent City offers laundry, computers, telephones, GED classes, medical checkups and caseworkers who pass out goodies like bus passes, clothes and bikes.
While most other shelters restrict stays to 30 days, Tent City shoots for six months, but there's no real deadline. Couples can stay together, sharing 10-by-10 Coleman tents or tiny wooden sheds called casitas, whereas most shelters separate men and women.
Catholic Charities tried to replicate Pinellas Hope in Hillsborough County, but residents worried about the homeless wandering through their neighborhoods shot it down.
Pinellas politicians sometimes hold up Pinellas Hope to show they're reducing homelessness, but it's no panacea — not by a long shot.
For starters, there's no escaping the rigors of outdoor living. Summertime heat can melt stick deodorant. Even a moderate rainfall turns pathways into muck.
Between 200 and 300 people live there at a time, large by shelter standards, but they are just a slice of Pinellas County's overall homeless population, estimated at nearly 7,000.
Thousands of potential candidates are disqualified by a no-booze, no- drugs policy. Families with children aren't allowed. Background checks seek to weed out sex offenders and those with violent pasts.
Even among those who do get in, dysfunction can run high.
Before background and sobriety checks improved, Tent City managers twice asked sheriff's deputies to pose as residents to investigate drug dealing. Dozens were arrested.
Through April, deputies have been called to Tent City 102 times, though serious crimes like assault, drug dealing and grand theft have diminished noticeably over the past year.
Four out of 10 residents get kicked out, land in jail, or simply leave.
But for motivated residents like Dan Quaid, Tent City and its services offer a springboard for getting off the street.
"I couldn't get much accomplished if I had to worry about where I was showering or eating,'' says Quaid.
Dan Quaid, now 41, and Evelyn Morgan, 47, started living together in a Pinellas Park trailer park about a year ago, after her husband was jailed on domestic violence charges.
Morgan is an antsy bipolar neatnik with a history of drinking and fighting. "I can be nasty,'' she says.
She left three young children in Pennsylvania when she moved to Florida, figuring their father could better care for them. Now adults, those children reject her telephone calls, she says, but "I know they still love me.'' Christmas cards come back opened, "so I know they read them.''
Quaid always tended toward aimlessness. On-again, off-again jobs were interspersed by drug and alcohol arrests.
But as a couple, they seem to mesh.
Morgan says Quaid won't argue or fight, even when she gets on a tear. Quaid says Morgan gets him to talk about his feelings and makes him feel important. "When I talk, she seems to listen," he says.
They became homeless last year when the recession killed Quaid's carpet-laying job. Morgan was out of work, too, in between sporadic stints at fast-food restaurants.
They pitched a tent in a bushy vacant lot on 66th Street and supplemented their food stamps by scouring Winn-Dixie trash bins for sandwiches and chicken nuggets that hadn't sold.
He started hunting for scrap metal, desperate for any penny he could scrounge. She hated to see him leave before daybreak. She is afraid of being alone in the dark, she says, because she was raped as a younger woman.
"I would sit up in the tent and listen for every little noise," she says. "I was freaking out.''
After three weeks, a Pinellas Park police officer offered to take them to Pinellas Hope. Quaid landed his Burger King job a few months later, adding to the $100 a week or so he made from scrapping.
His sister, St. Petersburg X-ray technician Kathy Cook, was impressed by his new-found determination.
"Before, he always drifted through life. Now he is focused and that is Evelyn,'' Cook said. "I don't think he's ever been in love before.''
At first, Quaid blew through his earnings sprucing up the casita to make Morgan comfortable: A portable DVD player and dozens of movies. Two coolers for food and drink. About $60 a month for ice. And $80 for a fan and flashlight batteries. Cigarettes at $4 a pack.
These splurges didn't sit well with Pinellas Hope case manager Teresa Webb.
She decides when residents are ready to leave. If they can scrape up enough income to support themselves on the outside, Catholic Charities will provide first month's rent, security and utility deposits, furniture, linens, dishes and some groceries.
By March, Quaid was raring to go. The couple had saved $300. Morgan had a tax refund coming, and was also awaiting an insurance settlement from a car-bike accident that hurt her back.
No way, Webb said. Quaid had earned $1,200 since he started at Burger King. Where was it?
He got huffy. Webb stood her ground.
No one was going anywhere without a bigger nest egg.
Patched together on the fly, Tent City enjoys flexibility that most government programs do not.
Rules are rules, until they're bent to give someone a break.
Most often, the person making or bending those rules is Sheila Lopez, Tent City's white-haired enforcer, chief fixer and mother hen.
Lopez, 69, is chief operating officer of Catholic Charities and the driving force behind Pinellas Hope. She hugs and finger wags. She decides who gets second or third chances.
When a drunken resident said he couldn't stop drinking, she ordered him to leave. But, she offered to get him help elsewhere, and take him back if he could stay sober.
When a schizophrenic woman, eight months pregnant, had no place to stay this winter, Lopez stashed her in a casita while searching for a more appropriate program. A walkie-talkie connected the woman to the office in case she went into labor.
When a church group forgot to bring its promised dinner last year, Lopez went to McDonald's and ordered 600 burgers.
"We don't say this is the script you've got to follow, and we don't say, you've got to do this, this and that," Lopez said. "The people that want to make use of everything that's here will succeed.''
Tent City leans heavily on in-kind and monetary donations that account for nearly half its $2.5 million budget. Churches and other groups supply all the dinners. Volunteers staff the front desk.
That holds down the cost for taxpayers — Pinellas cities and the county contribute more than $1 million a year — to about $12 per program resident per day. By comparison, it costs $126 a day to jail someone for public urination or trespass.
But the ultimate goal, of finding permanent housing, is harder to measure. The majority of residents move into some form of housing, but for how long is anyone's guess.
One couple got engaged this year, found work and cheerfully left Tent City for a trailer. That qualified them as a success on Catholic Charities' ledger. But after four months, their case manager couldn't find them.
Are they back on the street? Did they move north with family? This is not a population that tends to leave forwarding addresses.
At its most basic level, Tent City keeps people safe, then hopes for the best.
Tent City couldn't get by without top-down management, but it also requires residents to build a community by pitching in.
The 800 or so residents who pass through during the year clean dinner tables and bathrooms, remove trash and lay mulch along the paths.
A few residents repair bikes in a tucked away corner. Another resident helps the GED instructor run class. Others put together Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Community television sets stay dark until chores are finished after dinner, sometimes leading to squabbles over who participates and who doesn't.
Little touches foster togetherness. Residents get stockings at Christmas. Mother's Day brings flowers for the women.
"People say it's terrible to be homeless, but right now this is my home," said Keith Curry, 49. "People here are my family.''
Such sentiments, common among residents, represent one of Tent City's risks. The average stay is 87 days but some residents simply settle in.
Mark Rylander, 49, is a recovering alcoholic who is 22 months dry. He has been homeless for more than a decade. He has lived at Tent City more than a year. A case manager encouraged him to work toward a GED, but no one has set a deadline for him to leave.
He organizes the nightly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which help Tent City and give his life order.
In Tent 226, he uses a desk of crates and tends his aloe and philodendron plants in a pot outside.
"It's been nice. I love it here. I haven't had a bad meal in the year that I've lived here," Rylander said. "I don't feel homeless in this place."
Since leaving his parents' home as a teenager, Dan Quaid had never lived in a house — only in trailers or on friends' couches.
But last month, Pinellas Hope helped move him and Morgan into a two-bedroom rental house.
They won over case manager Teresa Webb by saving an additional $900.
"I'm glad you gave him a swift kick in the butt to get us started,'' Morgan tells Webb as she inspects their new home.
"I'm very proud of you,'' Webb says. "It makes my hairs stand up on my arms.''
Three weeks later, Quaid proved how independence from Tent City's structure carries risk.
He got mad at Morgan, spent a few hours at a bar, fell asleep drunk on a public bench, then took a swipe at a passing EMS worker who tried to rouse him. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of simple assault and was assessed court costs.
A week later, an unannounced visitor checked in on him on a Monday morning. Both he and Morgan were sober, showered and relaxed, the house immaculately neat.
Quaid's job at Burger King, scrap collecting and their food stamps more than cover day-to-day expenses, he says. He is also repainting the house in exchange for rent.
While he works, Morgan fights boredom.
She vacuums with a passion, rearranges the living room furniture every week and has spray-painted an outside fence white. In a small plot, she has planted cucumber, squash, peas and watermelon — not realizing that such plants rarely survive July's heat.
But for now, seedlings have sprouted, green and tender.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8442.