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Volunteers offer touch of normality to homeless

ST. PETERSBURG — With hundreds of doctors and nurses on hand, and more than 80 groups offering an array of services for the homeless, John Odenbrett's first order of business Saturday was his hair.

"It hadn't been washed in three weeks," said the 55-year-old, who has been living on the streets of St. Petersburg for about two months.

Odenbrett was among more than 1,000 people who spent part of the day at the city's historic Coliseum for the annual Project Homeless Connect event, which brought together various professionals and nearly 900 volunteers who helped provide everything from a good meal to legal services to medical and dental care.

With his hair washed and cut, Odenbrett's next stops were the Veterans Affairs tent for a new ID card and possibly to the medical area to help deal with the leg cramps he's been getting from all the walking he does.

"I'll take him anywhere he wants to go," said volunteer Gina Collins, who guided Odenbrett through the busy Coliseum grounds.

Each participant at Saturday's event was paired with a volunteer, who helped map out which areas to visit. One outside tent was devoted to legal, education and job services. Another had representatives from various community programs. A number of mobile services units were parked out back, including the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Inside the Coliseum were medical stations. Twenty-six booths were for primary care and pediatrics. Others offered dental and vision services. A row of tables was reserved for lab and blood work. The Pinellas County Health Department provided free H1N1 vaccines.

The event was organized by a collaboration of groups, including the city of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, Pinellas County Health and Human Services and the Salvation Army.

John McDonald, 54, had a number of items on his to-do list, including legal services and maybe a doctor or two for an assortment of ailments. But he wanted to clean himself up first, so he took a seat under a tree while a volunteer washed his hair.

"There aren't many places to clean up," he said, noting that he last washed his hair in a restroom that had a water hose.

McDonald has been homeless for more than a year. He's been looking for work, and even furnished a flier advertising his handyman services. "I'm a licensed electrician," he says, "if you want to give me a little advertising."

One new feature of the event allowed some to clean up outstanding legal issues. Dozens made their way to a secluded area behind the stage at the Coliseum, where the first-ever Homeless Court was in session.

Pinellas Judges James Pierce and Lorraine Kelly, along with a number of attorneys and public defenders, were on hand to help people resolve minor cases. Some had outstanding open-container violations; others had been cited for trespassing. Pierce said some who were cited had the option of paying their fine, setting up a payment plan or working it off at a rate of $8 an hour providing community service.

Austin Mann, 59, came to Homeless Court to deal with two open-container violations he received in the past few months. His first stop was with one of the attorneys, then with Judge Kelly. He received a February court date to deal with his infractions, each of which carries a $113 fine.

Mann said he became homeless when he could no longer pay the rent on his apartment. Not long ago, he owned his own nursery and landscaping business in South Tampa. But he said the arrival of a Home Depot, then a Lowe's home-improvement store, killed his business.

Homelessness has been rough, he says. Just getting a good night's sleep is difficult, because he always needs to keep one eye open.

"Every day I see more and more people becoming homeless," he said.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

Volunteers offer touch of normality to homeless 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 11:12pm]
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