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Lifeline for homeless

BROOKSVILLE

A few minutes after 4 p.m., the men and women begin gathering in the parking lot of the Lowe's store on the city's south side.

They arrive on old bicycles with trailers and by foot with shopping carts, ready to carry off whatever is offered to them.

For Rick Dale, 53, and Dee Gotts, 54, a couple who live in a tent in some nearby woods, their immediate needs are a few canned goods, a couple of boxes of cereal, some juices, a loaf of bread and a canister of propane for their cook stove.

Eyeing an orange jacket in a pile of clothing spread out behind Bob Francis' van, Gotts asks if she can try it on.

"It's going to get cold tonight, maybe even rain," she tells Francis. "I don't sleep well when it's cold."

Casting a smile at her, Francis tells Gotts to help herself.

"Bless you," Gotts replies. "God bless all of you."

A struggling economy, coupled with a lack of affordable housing, has contributed to Hernando County's burgeoning homeless population. While state statistics show that on any given day as many as 776 people live throughout the county in shelters, woods or other makeshift residences, Francis and fellow Joseph's House co-founder Tom Brady believe those numbers don't accurately reflect the depth of the county's homeless problem.

For the past three years, Brady and Francis have been spearheading a "strike team" in south Brooksville that regularly interacts with people who don't seek help through traditional outreach programs.

Every Thursday, Brady and Francis gather with a small army of volunteers at their outreach mission on Josephine Street. They load vehicles with food, beverages, clothing and other items before heading to locations where the homeless live.

Although many of their clients reside in mobile home parks and modest motels, Brady and Francis have endeavored to include several tent encampments on the outskirts of Brooksville.

Tucked away in deeply wooded areas near busy roads, the tent camps often reveal the itinerant nature of the people who live there. Brady and Francis have often shown up to find the camps totally deserted.

"They're squatters, and they get kicked off private property a lot," said Francis, 47. "One day they're there; the next day they may not be. That's just the way it is."

For that reason, Francis and Brady have been encouraging their clients to meet them at predisclosed locations. The Lowe's parking lot at Broad Street and Wiscon Road is one of them. There, the strike team is greeted by a dozen or so people, most of whom have been showing up for several months.

The volunteers quickly hand out food, water, clothing and other personal items that have been donated by a network of area churches and food pantries, as well as businesses such as Walmart and Panera Bread.

Over time, the men have worked to build trust in their clients, many of whom are reluctant to speak about their plight with strangers.

"These are people who aren't just economically challenged," Brady, 29, said as he handed out boxes of food. "Some of them suffer from major mental illness, alcohol and drug dependency, or they might have a criminal history. They know that they aren't welcome in most places around town, so they make their own community."

But Brady says that a growing number of his clients are simply people who have fallen through the cracks and have nowhere else to turn. Gotts, who works a part-time job at a restaurant, is one of them.

When Dale, her boyfriend of seven years, got sick last summer, earning enough money to pay rent became an impossible task. The couple bought a tent and settled in a wooded area near other homeless individuals.

"We tried to sell just about all our belongings to keep a roof over our head," Gotts said. "When we ran out of things to sell, we had no other choice."

A 2000 graduate of Central High School, Brady became interested in homeless issues while studying for his degree in social work at Pasco-Hernando Community College. A member of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, he began teaming up with Francis, a member of Grace World Outreach Church in Brooksville, in 2009 as part of a homeless ministerial program supported by their respective churches.

Over time, the men's efforts grew into the formation of Joseph's House, a nonprofit food bank that gets financial support from other area churches as well as private donors.

A year ago, the effort got a boost from Night Runners Mobile Crisis Services and Disaster Relief, a faith-based, nondenominational Florida outreach group, which donated labor and materials to build a permanent facility in south Brooksville.

Brady and Francis both say they are looking toward the future with optimism. As more volunteers have signed on, they have been able to do more in the community.

"Everyone involved will tell you it's something of a calling for them," said Brady. "It's all about having a positive impact on people who don't have many positive things going for them, and to let them know they haven't been forgotten."

Photojournalist Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

.fast facts

Joseph's House

Joseph's House is at 823 Josephine St. in Brooksville. Call (352) 600-8295. Joseph's House is also on Facebook (on Facebook search "Joseph's House Brooksville").

Lifeline for homeless 12/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 24, 2011 12:00pm]
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