TAMPA — A few weeks ago, Joanne O'Brien was headed to a bread store near her house in northeast Tampa when a sign caught her eye. It was on the edge of several wooded acres and gave a phone number and date for a zoning meeting.
O'Brien, 63, called immediately.
"I couldn't believe my ears," she said. "Catholic Charities was slipping in a tent city for hundreds of homeless right under my nose. I told the zoning woman, 'Over my dead body.' "
Over the next few weeks, the expression became her mantra — to neighbors and merchants in the area and to TV and newspaper reporters — as she campaigned to stop the proposed homeless community.
Never mind that Catholic Charities promised that the tent city would be well-run and organized to help homeless people get back on their feet, and that it would include meals, toilets, showers and follow all zoning ordinances. O'Brien insisted she knew better.
"They won't use the toilets and their pee and poop will get into our ground water," she said. "They'll be over here in our neighborhood with all of their addictions and mental illness, stealing everything that isn't tied down," she told the media.
She persuaded a trucking company on nearby Hillsborough Avenue to print 325 fliers warning about the tent city, and she single-handedly put 300 of them on doors and in mailboxes.
Any time a person came to the door, she gave the same speech: "If we don't stop this tent city, hundreds of homeless will be right outside our doors."
But to spend time with O'Brien, on the other side of her own door, is to realize just how curious her vehement opposition is.
"I know I'm an anomaly," she said.
• • •
In 1997, Joanne O'Brien moved to Tampa from New York City to please her third husband, John. He had been sober for years after struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and she figured it was the least she could do.
"He recovered and helped so many others to recover," she said.
After about a year, they bought a concrete 3/2 just inside East Lake Park subdivision, off Orient Road. Shorebirds nested nearby. Kids fished in the lake down the block. The neighbors invited them over for coffee. Gone were the days of seeing homeless sleeping on the sidewalks.
But two weeks into what O'Brien calls "the life I always wanted," John dropped dead of a heart attack.
"So much for paradise," said O'Brien.
Joanne O'Brien grew up in Staten Island with an alcoholic father. She married young, had two children with the first husband and two more with the second. When things got tough, she drove a bus, baited hooks on a party boat, and sold Fuller brushes. When things got tougher, she declared bankruptcy and went on food stamps and welfare to get by.
"I lived very close to the edge," she said.
As O'Brien tells her story, her 44-year-old son, John Lowe, sits on a big cushy green sofa in the living room, drinking coffee. Lowe has lived with her for 10 months.
"My mother saved me from the street," he says.
When a reporter turns to O'Brien and says that she sounds suspiciously compassionate, she attempts to explain: "I helped him because I believe it's up to family to help family."
Like his mother, Lowe speaks openly about his life. He was a successful Manhattan stockbroker when the first manic episode hit him. After that, he led a roller-coaster life between hospitalization and successful jobs until a recent divorce sent him into a tailspin and to Florida to live with his mother.
"There is a lot of bipolar and schizophrenia in our family," says O'Brien. "So I've educated myself to be as helpful as I can."
• • •
As she talks, a dozen well-fed cats she rescued from the street stroll in and out of the room.
"I keep them inside because creatures living outside have a dramatically shortened life span," she says.
The irony of her explanation is not lost on her daughter, who has dropped by because her mother asked her to come over to help her explain her objection to the homeless.
Linda Vandriessche, 35, lost her job last year and almost lost her home, until her mother offered financial help.
"Believe me, we all know that homelessness can happen to anybody," says the daughter, while her mother nods.
"She was almost homeless," O'Brien says, "but she wasn't."
Vandriessche prods her mother to say exactly what her reason for opposing the homeless is: "It's not addiction, mental illness or poverty because you've lived with all of that and worked it out," the daughter says. "What is it — fear of crime?"
O'Brien pets a cat on her lap and thinks about it: Maybe it's the numbers that bother her most about the tent city, she offers. That big concentration of homeless could mean more crime. Maybe if it were fewer people she would be okay with it, she tells her daughter.
"Maybe I'd even go over there and help out," O'Brien says.
"You know what I think?" Vandriessche says. "I think you came out on one side of this issue when you could have just as easily come out on the other, and having done that, you dug in your heels like you always do."
Joanne O'Brien will tell you that she likes to dig in her heels. She fought the noise of a nearby amphitheater and also fought to get the Hard Rock Casino near her house to put up a wall along Orient Road. She describes herself as a "big mouth" and says she's "quick to go into action."
But she is slow to answer her daughter.
O'Brien kisses a calico on the arm of her chair. She picks up a photo album and flips through it. After a few minutes she looks at her daughter and speaks: "It's true. I do like winning. …"
But before she can finish, the front door swings open with such force it bangs into the wall, and a stooped, elderly man on a three-legged cane shuffles in. O'Brien introduces him as "Alphonse, who just got out of the hospital and lives here."
As he heads down the hall toward the guest bedroom, she whispers, "I had to do it. He had no family. He had no place to go."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8068.