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Volunteers fan out to count Pinellas County's homeless

ST. PETERSBURG — Sheryl Lemley laid out on her worn comforter on a clearing in Unity Park.

Lemley and her fiance often pass time sitting and chatting with others at the park, just south of Interstate 375.

On this frigid but sunny Thursday morning, four women with clipboards approached.

Lemley's the shy one, so she tucked herself under two pink and red fleece blankets and let her fiance, Brandon Alkire, do the talking.

The women were volunteers for Pinellas County's annual homeless count. They wanted to know how long the couple had been homeless. Where they slept. What had led to their situation.

Alkire, 21, talked about how his mother kicked him out when he was 19, and how Lemley, who turned 32 Thursday, had fought drug addiction in New Port Richey and came to St. Petersburg to start over.

They've been on and off the streets for almost a year.

"It's all about survival here," Alkire said. "It's a dog-eat-dog world. Literally."

Their friend Adam Cameron, 43, showed the volunteers the scalded skin on his back and arms from burns he received after saving seven people from a fire in 2012.

The trio spent the night before in an empty lot nearby. They like it because it's quiet and feels safe. But after the sun rose above the interstate ramp, the group, as well as others, flocked to Unity Park.

"This park isn't as bad as Williams Park, but it's getting there," Alkire said.

The women left them with drawstring bags stuffed with a few T-shirts, socks and hygienic products.

• • •

Rose Stauffer, the leader of the four-woman group assigned to Unity Park, gave a quick pep talk in the short car ride there.

"You just never know what you're going to find on these little excursions," said Stauffer, 52. "You might find nobody at all or a lot of people. Just be prepared."

Sitting shotgun, Calandra Walker shared how she woke up at 5:30 a.m., nervous about the day.

But her passion to help the less fortunate won out.

"This is my biggest pet peeve," said Walker, 41. "There should be nobody in the world without the basic necessities."

Donning neon-yellow T-shirts, Stauffer and Walker were two of 219 volunteers deployed from Boley Centers to comb through parks, motels and other areas where homeless or those at risk of homelessness may be in south Pinellas County.

The count, organized by the Homeless Leadership Board and mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps determine federal housing funding. Similar counts also took place Thursday in Charlotte and Collier counties.

Last year's results found 7,000 homeless people in Pinellas.

"We're hopeful that this survey gets into the details and the needs of the community," said Kevin Marrone, director of community and homeless services at Boley Centers.

• • •

At Unity Park, the women found 16 homeless people willing to take surveys, which asks respondents how long they've been homeless and whether they've been jailed or had problems with substance abuse.

Three others were counted, but refused to take the survey. The goodie bags offered as a reward were persuasive.

"It's a good deal," said Sammy Boggs, 40, a Kentucky transplant who curled up in a red sleeping bag. "There is help back home but nothing like it here."

Lemley and Alkire said they prefer the streets to shelters, which they say are ridden with bed bugs or too far or unsafe.

The couple get by with cash Alkire earns from odd carpentry jobs on the weekends, food stamps and cash from Samaritans who randomly stop by the park to give them money. When money is tight, Alkire said he resorts to selling spice.

Despite the hardships, their relationship has endured. Lemley sported an engagement ring on her finger Alkire paid $125 for at a pawn shop.

"As long as I got my girl, I'm okay," he said. "Your friends are your family out here."

Volunteers fan out to count Pinellas County's homeless 01/23/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 10:39pm]
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