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Last days of chapel mean loss of services for homeless in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS

Raw sores ooze on John Dear's feet where friction from his wet tennis shoes wore away skin during Tropical Storm Debby.

And now his tent in the woods is starting to mold.

Soon, life will be even more difficult for the 57-year-old homeless man.

G.R.A.C.E. (God's Riches at Christ's Expense) Chapel, a day shelter where Dear and other homeless people stop to eat, get cleaned up, make a phone call or pick up mail, will close its doors for good on Friday unless a funding source is found.

"I'll miss the showers and doing my laundry here," Dear said, climbing on his bicycle loaded with all his worldly goods: tubes of antibiotic ointment, a few items of clothing and supplies. "I'll miss the people too."

With that, he headed out to face another day in the sweltering heat.

A gun shop and barbecue restaurant used to occupy the two small concrete block buildings that now make up G.R.A.C.E. Chapel at 1278 N Pinellas Ave., just north of the Anclote River bridge. Many homeless people live in the surrounding woods.

A cross on the front door serves as a welcome sign for "guests" or "friends." Here, simple breakfasts of oatmeal, coffee and juice are served. Sometimes local grocery and convenience stores donate day-old sandwiches for lunch. Bible studies and 12-step recovery programs help nourish the soul.

It's a humble little place filled with worn appliances and donated furniture. The air-conditioning units in the windows don't work. The building floods in a heavy rain.

But since 2008, the faith-based ministry has been a haven for the unemployed, the forgotten and the addicted, providing them with a phone number and mailing address, Internet access, laundry and shower facilities, clothing and toiletries, tents and backpacks, help with job searches and access to social service agencies.

Used bicycles, donated by Anclote Metal Recycling, are refurbished and given out as well. Mobility provides access to food, services and work.

G.R.A.C.E. Chapel was envisioned by the Rev. Frank Creamer, a recently retired rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Tarpon Springs. He wanted to find a way to help those living on the streets.

He said he couldn't get help from the city of Tarpon Springs, so he rallied area churches, individuals and businesses to support his cause. He recruited retired Air Force Col. Larry McKellar, who also worked as an Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer for the Air Force Reserves and FEMA and was an airline captain for American Airlines, flying international routes for 30 years.

McKellar and his wife Annalisa have worked tirelessly for the shelter, donating not only time but money too.

Initially, the shelter operated on $3,000 a month. Doors were open six days a week, 12 hours a day. An average of 50 people a day were served. The highest count was 125.

"In the first year we placed 50 people into mobile homes and apartments because they were able to get jobs with our support," said Creamer, 58.

Then the Great Recession hit.

"So many churches' budgets were negatively affected," Creamer said. "We lost a lot of funding."

They lost volunteers too. As nest eggs shriveled, many had to find paying jobs. Others found the work and conditions just too stressful.

In the beginning, rent for the property was $1,750 a month. To help, the landlord has lowered the rent to $500 a month. Utilities and other expenses are an additional $800 a month.

With funds so low, the doors of G.R.A.C.E. Chapel are now open only three days a week, from 7 a.m. to noon.

"We have no more funds unless something happens," said McKellar, 65. "We have just a few more dollars for a few more days."

• • •

James Smith, 54, injured his hand when he fell 40 feet while trimming a tree. He's on disability and looking for a job. He lives in a tent furnished with a Weber grill, Coleman camping table and chairs.

"I have everything you do except the bills," he told a reporter.

He frets about what he will do when he can't shower anymore. G.R.A.C.E. Chapel is the only place for miles that offers showers for the homeless.

"I won't be able to make myself presentable to get a job," he said.

The men — and a few women — who depend on G.R.A.C.E. Chapel say they will look for new ways to meet their basic needs. As they scout the area for water spigots, they predict residents will see an unexpected rise in their water bills. Petty crimes may increase in the area, they said.

Without the chapel's help and services, it will now be harder than ever to assimilate back into society.

"If people don't get off the streets quickly, they stay there forever," said William Hanley, 41. Hanley says he has a college education, but he depends on G.R.A.C.E. for help.

If the chapel closes, he foresees a rise in infectious diseases that could affect the whole community.

"Hospitals will see more MRSA, strep and staph infections," he said. "We're talking about costs of at least $2,000 a day for the hospital.

"A program like this is much more cost effective."

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

>>fast facts

How to contact

For more information, contact G.R.A.C.E. Chapel at (727) 934-1199 or Larry McKellar at (727) 692-5473.

Last days of chapel mean loss of services for homeless in Tarpon Springs 08/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 9:14pm]

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