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Pinellas Hope's homeless camp wins over neighbor

PINELLAS PARK — He smiled, stacking squares of sod into the yellow truck.

It was just after 7 a.m., and Ben Young prepared to start a day's work. He paused for a moment to show the palm of his hand.

"I even got calluses," he said, rubbing the hardened skin with a finger. "This is great! I'm so thankful that Mr. Nichols has given me the opportunity to get my life back on track."

A few yards away in the warehouse, Greg Nichols doled out the day's schedule to his crew. Two years ago, Nichols didn't think he'd find any use for the homeless people like the 58-year-old Young, who would be moving in across the street from his construction business, G.A. Nichols Co.

Hillsborough County commissioners will decide this week on a similar project proposed by Catholic Charities in East Tampa. Business and homeowners close to the site near Harney Road and E Hillsborough Avenue fear increased crime and blight, along with lower property values.

Like others who opposed Pinellas Hope, also run by Catholic Charities, Nichols felt that a tent city didn't belong in the area. He expected drunken bums and vandalism.

Now he has three Pinellas Hope residents on his staff.

"I guess we were like everyone else," Nichols said. "The natural reaction when you hear what's coming across the street is to be concerned, especially when it's your small business and you've got $1 million worth of equipment and materials sitting in the yard.

"I would tell people that it's not a bad thing. You just can't be naive and say they're snapping their fingers and turning bums into astronauts or anything. They've got a tough crowd."

For Nichols, it was a slow change of heart, garnered by respect for the hard work he saw every day across the street.

At first, he complained all the time to Pinellas Hope director Sheila Lopez. Volunteers parked their cars all over the place, making it hard for his crew to get trucks and equipment in and out.

Then he got nervous about his guys possibly running over residents walking up and down 126th Avenue N because there were no sidewalks.

"It got to the point where I'd walk over there red-faced and waving my arms in the air," Nichols said. "And Sheila would cringe when she saw me coming."

But each concern was always addressed. Nichols liked that Lopez was competent, and how she had a mix of compassion and sternness that kept things orderly and moving at the camp.

It got harder and harder for him to stay mad.

"It's part of the job," Lopez said. "Greg was over here a lot. But that's what we do. Every time there's a problem, we go one by one, addressing them all. It's just like being at home with your husband or wife or kids, you try to flex a little and make it palatable.

"That's how we became friends."

It's not a perfect relationship. Since it opened, 95 offenses or incidents have been reported at the camp, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Nichols still hates it when residents sometimes meander into the road, and ultimately feels that a location next to a grocery store and other services would have been better.

He also won't forget getting burned by one of his first hires from Pinellas Hope. Like others have, the man showed up in Nichols' office asking for a job.

"He would stay around after work, and ask me questions about this and that," Nichols said. "We'd talk for hours. I thought I was really helping to mentor this guy."

The truth was revealed when he didn't show for work. He was a crack addict, and Nichols fired him.

"I wouldn't know a crack addict from the bishop," Nichols said. "That one was hard to take. He was playing me like a violin."

Now Lopez refers potential employees his way. He feels confident about the men he's hired this time around.

"We're thrilled to death with them," Nichols said. "They want to work. You can tell. Attitude is so important with any job, and you know when you're wasting your time."

He doesn't feel that way about Pinellas Hope anymore.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

. FAST FACTS

The plan

Catholic Charities wants to build a tent village similar to Pinellas Hope on 12 acres near Harney Road and E Hillsborough Avenue. The nonprofit agency hopes to rezone the land to provide temporary emergency housing for 250 people up to 90 days at a time. Hillsborough County commissioners are expected to make a decision Tuesday. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the second-floor boardroom of the County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Pinellas Hope's homeless camp wins over neighbor 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 9:41pm]

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