Pinellas County's tent city for homeless faces a big rebuilding job

PINELLAS PARK — Richard Ulrich swept off a wood platform where his home, It was a 10-by-10 tent that held virtually all his belongings, used to be.

It was a 10-by-10 tent that held virtually all his belongings.

But everything was gone Friday. The storm a day earlier that whipped across Tampa Bay took out 100 of the 250 tents at the Pinellas Hope complex for the homeless.

"It really hurts us here when you don't have much anyway," said Ulrich, 52, an unemployed bookkeeper whose losses include a suit coat and ties for interviews. "We definitely need help."

Black plastic bags held rain-soaked clothing and blankets waiting for mildew to set in. Residents' papers, often crucial to getting aid, were damaged or missing. Sleeping bags needed deep cleaning or replacement.

One man wrung out a stuffed bear. Another man asked for oil to restore his power tools. Another wrote off his coffee maker, thankful he was able to save his laptop computer. A woman was happy to save pictures of her 2-year-old son.

Many residents have mental or physical illness that makes the damage that much harder. Bill Hayes, a 54-year-old diabetic, said his blood sugar monitor was damaged. Hayes didn't know what he'd do to monitor what he eats and the medicine he takes. But managers said there had been no medical emergencies.

"I don't know what I lost yet," said Mervin McClain, 47, as he picked up debris. "But it's just material things."

Catholic Charities, the nonprofit that runs the 13-acre "tent city," is asking for money and volunteers for cleanup, and clothes and shoes for residents. Damage was estimated at up to $50,000 before an insurance adjuster arrived.

Pinellas Hope, which opened in December 2007, withstood lesser storms before. Normally during rains, residents patch smaller tears and soak up water on tent bottoms.

"This was the worst," said Sheila Lopez, Catholic Charities chief operating officer, who spearheads Pinellas Hope.

Tree limbs went through the roof and ceiling of a recently built apartment. Another limb left a 12-foot gash in a large tent pavilion where new residents are admitted.

Broken branches littered the soupy ground of mud and mulch.

But no one was injured. At 10:43 a.m. Thursday, sheriff's deputy Tim Myers, a homeless outreach officer, called to warn Pinellas Hope of a potential tornado. Staffers using bullhorns raced to move residents to a community building for safety.

The power went out until 3:30 a.m. Friday. Most residents spent the night in vacant apartments on site.

As men chopped a tree trunk hours after the storm, Lopez halted them. A chunk had a sign tacked to it she wanted to keep. It read, "Purpose."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

.Fast facts

How to help

Catholic Charities is seeking donations of money, clothing and volunteers at Pinellas Hope. The websites ccspod.org and pinellashope.org provide details. Donations also can be left at the complex, 5726 126th Ave. N.

Pinellas County's tent city for homeless faces a big rebuilding job 04/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 4:25pm]

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