On a recent Thursday, Sharon Braden relaxed in a chair under a tree. It was not yet 9:30 a.m., and she was relieved to find a moment to catch her breath.
At Pinellas Hope, the open-air homeless community in unincorporated Pinellas County, Thursday is "In-Take Day."
A Pinellas County sheriff's deputy had promised to drive Braden from her friend's home in Lealman to the shelter north of Pinellas Park.
He stayed true to the plan. It wouldn't be long before she could check in.
"I see this as a chance to get my life back,'' said Braden, 55.
"When I woke up this morning, I knew I was on my way, and I know I'm safe here. Actually, my biggest fear right now has to do with finding a job," Braden said.
Each week, Deputy Tim Myers of the Pinellas County Community Policing Homeless Outreach Team leads 12 or so people like Braden through the gates of Pinellas Hope. Although he has a desk in the Largo headquarters of the Sheriff's Office, Myers spends most of his time outside, roaming the county's middle and northern sections.
His job is to find homeless people, recognize their needs and lead them to shelter. He also serves as a liaison between the Sheriff's Office and Pinellas Hope, the shelter designed to handle residents for a longer period of time than other facilities.
Myers, 42, and his partner, social worker Janice Wiggins of Directions for Mental Health, are the Sheriff's Office's component of a multiagency group, which also includes the St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park police departments.
Teams made up of a police officer and a social worker make sure those in need are delivered safely to one of three shelters that provide beds: Pinellas Hope, Everybody's Tabernacle in Clearwater and Turning Point in St. Petersburg.
Myers' job hits close to his heart.
"My father was homeless," he said. "He was one of those who lived from friend to friend. … I have to say I realize now my dad has inspired me.''
He decided to become a cop as a teenager at Seminole High School. He enrolled in the Southeastern Public Safety Institute at the Allstate Center in St. Petersburg and was hired in 1989 by the St. Petersburg Police Department.
"When I was young, I became a police officer really for the action of it,'' Myers said.
But in 1999, he joined the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and worked his way to the homeless outreach team. "It's a 24-hour thing. Let's face it, people are not homeless just between 9 to 5.''
According to his boss, Sgt. Mike Leiner, Myers is on a mission.
"Tim is fantastic in the sense that he makes a problem his own," Leiner said. "I know he'll always be willing to go the extra mile, and he can handle whatever comes up.''
Each day, Myers monitors the northern pockets of the county with Wiggins, whose background provides expertise on resources available to the homeless.
"Also, I make people nervous when they see my uniform, and the minute they see Janice, they relax and we can do our job," he said. "I couldn't do it without her.''
And for Wiggins, Myers is key for her work, too. "He upholds the law, but he knows how to ease people on,'' she said.
According to Sheila Lopez, director of Pinellas Hope and chief operating officer of Catholic Charities, the partnership she has with Pinellas law enforcement has been a priority since day one.
Lopez touts the fact that since it opened in December 2007, Pinellas Hope has not had a major criminal incident. She attributes much of the success to Myers.
"We have a system here," she said. "And along with that, we always have a deputy on duty at night. I also know if I need more to be done, I can call on Tim 24/7.''
Reach Piper Castillo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.