Sunday, February 18, 2018
News Roundup

Mobile medical van links services to Pasco's homeless

It was late last year. Pat Mulieri needed $25,000 in donations to buy a used mobile medical van from Pinellas County to help the needy.

The gifts were slow in coming. The county commissioner prayed for help.

"If you want this van, get me the money," she asked God.

"He said, 'Where's your $5,000?' "

She didn't tell her husband when she followed that advice. But it worked.

"When I wrote that check, money started coming in," she said.

The county bought the van in February and outfitted it with other donations and state funding. Now it makes regular rotations three times a week to more than a dozen locations.

With Mulieri as its biggest cheerleader, the medical van is part of a quiet groundswell of services for Pasco's poor and homeless over the past few years. It is the most visible symbol in an effort to unite the county's constellation of nonprofits and charities.

Mulieri, 74, has long been an advocate — for environmental causes, for breast cancer awareness, for the needs of individual constituents. But the longtime commissioner, nearing the end of her time in public office, has only recently taken up the cause of Pasco's homeless.

She's far from the only person in the effort, though.

She is quick to praise Bob Dillinger, the Pasco-Pinellas public defender whose office oversees the medical van. Many of his employees work closely with Pasco's 6,000 homeless people, a third of whom are children.

"Things just keep falling into place," she said. "It never would have happened if Bob didn't take it under his wing."

Assistant Public Defender Raine Johns has long provided legal help to the homeless and mentally ill in Pinellas. A few months ago, she shifted her focus to Pasco.

"Coming here, there was no hope at all," she said. "The chronic nature of the homelessness here . . . there just weren't any services."

Mulieri and medical van coordinator Shanna Shea recently attended a national street medicine conference in Salt Lake City. Shea, who works in the public defender's jail diversion program, said it's vital to build relationships with homeless people. That takes persistence. It takes time.

"They've been let down so much in the past that they don't want to open up," she said. "They aren't the most approachable people."

Mulieri said: "But they are people."

• • •

The medical van stopped by the Volunteer Way in Moon Lake last week. One patient was a first-grader at Cypress Elementary who was removed from classes because officials feared the eczema on her face is contagious.

Her family doesn't have a car to go pick up the medication. They don't have bicycles. Moon Lake doesn't have bus service.

The closest pharmacy is Publix on Ridge Road, an hour's walk each way from their mobile home.

Whether they're picking up medicine or the week's groceries, they are a prime example of the transportation challenges facing many residents of Moon Lake.

"That's the biggest issue in my opinion," said Jim Paar, the medical van's driver and emergency medical technician. "Everybody says that once you're here, there's no way to get out. It's like a black hole."

The county was instrumental in the Volunteer Way's expansion to Moon Lake four years ago. It allows the nonprofit to use a strip center that is slated for demolition when Moon Lake Road is widened in a few years.

The facility includes a soup kitchen, showers, a haircut station and donated clothes. Lester Cypher, the group's founder, plans to offer job training and temporary transportation while people save money for their own ride to work.

"If we all worked together, pulled together with no other agenda but helping the needy out there," he said, "do you know what kind of an impact we'd have on this community?"

Mulieri recruited a Volunteer Way regular to help with another passion: walking dogs and cleaning cages at the county animal shelter.

"I'm not working right now, so I have a lot of time," said Mike Ryan, a lanky man with long gray hair and an arm full of tattoos. "Plus, we both have a thing for animals."

Ryan, 50, described how he lost his Tarpon Springs home after blowing too much money on drugs and bars. He's lived in Moon Lake for about a year. He said he's clean now but has been out of work for more than a year.

He paused to take a phone call. A lead on a truck driving job.

Johns and Paar team up to visit homeless camps twice a week, building relationships so people are less leery about accepting help.

That's how Paar met Dana Hull.

Hull was 22 and living in Las Vegas when his 6-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting. His life took a turn for the worse. In April, he was released from prison after a yearlong sentence for burglary. He lives in an abandoned mobile home off U.S. 19 in Port Richey.

Paar's daughter is 5. "I can understand why the guy's in that situation," he said.

Hull, now 41, has a shaved head and a teardrop tattoo below his right eye to honor his son. When Paar first met him a few months ago, he asked a simple question: If I could give you one thing, what would it be?

Hull replied with the first thing that came to mind. A stable roof over his head.

He came back later to talk to Paar.

"I thought about your question," he said. "No one's ever asked me that before."

He had a new request: an ID so he could find work.

He managed to land a construction job. Now he has to keep it. He is in the middle of a complex process to acquire a birth certificate, a Social Security card. Then he gets his driver license.

Paar said: "I think his life is going in the right direction."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.


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