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Guest column

Visit to homeless shelter opens eyes to their plight

Since the recession began, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people seeking money on street corners, or panhandling. Unemployment figures are in the double digits. Families, who were otherwise employed and proud, now find themselves asking motorists for money.

The Tampa City Council recently refused to ban panhandling. Chairman Thomas Scott was very vocal and passionate in allowing it to continue.

However, I admit that in past years I never gave money to people on the streets. As a matter of fact, I really thought they were all just a bunch of lazy bums just seeking easy money.

In my daily travels, I kept noticing one group, "The Homeless Helping the Homeless," on multiple street corners. Their people hold large signs and carry white collection buckets. I was puzzled: How can the homeless help the homeless? I was very skeptical. Just another slick way of raising money, I assumed.

Then one day, a man who wanted to talk with me suggested that we meet at 3010 N Florida Ave. When I arrived, he wasn't there, so I took the opportunity to check the place out. A sign out front said: The Homeless Helping the Homeless — the same people I had seen around town.

Soon, Gayle Bailey, who is in charge of raising money for the organization, greeted me and gave me a tour. I noticed how well-kept and organized the place was. For many of the residents, Bailey said, this is their only hope.

Here is what else I found out:

• The organization was formed in November 2008, and now there are three houses sheltering 76 people on the site. The leaders are in the process of acquiring a separate facility for mothers with children. It will be located about 1 mile away. Each resident has a free large storage locker, and beds are individually assigned.

• The group doesn't get any government funding. It is supported by roadside donations and private donors. Volunteer groups provide food and clothing.

• Residents are not required to leave the facility in the daytime, as is the case with some shelters. There are several open and relaxed patio areas with TVs and books. There is 24-hour security. The facility closes to the public at 8 p.m., and no one is allowed in or out after 11 p.m.

• No one is turned away. Some days more than 100 homeless people pass through the facility for various services, and residents can stay as long as they like.

• The money raised on the streets helps the organization pay overhead expenses. Residents are paid for the street soliciting, but are not required to do it.

• The organization offers job assistance, medical referrals and help with paperwork for social services agencies. Church groups visit, but participation in religious activity is strictly voluntary.

Now, you know what my main question was: How can someone who is homeless help the homeless?

The answer? Here, the homeless raise money on the streets to support the organization. They also do construction work at the facility, site maintenance, separate the various clothing donations, answer the telephones and assist new arrivals.

The organization is doing a lot to help people. Like any other nonprofit shelter, their need for additional finances is great.

After the tour, my outlook about the homeless and this group changed. Now, I'm more inclined to give to homeless people, although cautious and careful to avoid being scammed. In today's economic climate, anyone could become homeless.

Al Mccray is a Tampa resident and freelance writer whose work occasionally appears in the Times. He can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Visit to homeless shelter opens eyes to their plight 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 3:30am]
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