Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hillsborough deputy helps homeless people with firm hand, big heart

TAMPA

Deputy Steven Donaldson wants the homeless to be uncomfortable on the street.

He doesn't pass out blankets, doesn't get them food.

Maybe that will motivate them, he says.

Still, this Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy may be one of their greatest advocates.

Over the course of the past year, the 44-year-old Town 'N Country native, the middle child of three boys, has turned his patrol job into one that focuses solely on helping the homeless get shelter.

He's an unlikely source of help. He calls himself conservative, says he's no social worker, no bleeding heart. He hates bureaucracy and prefers a business plan.

Yet this deputy spends all of his working hours driving down West Hillsborough streets doing anything he can to get the homeless off the streets.

"I'm not trying to be philanthropic," he explains. "I'm solving a problem."

For 15 years as a patrol deputy, he dealt with homeless calls: disturbances, trespassing, public consumption of alcohol. Every arrest required paperwork and a trip to the jail.

But within days, the offender would often be back on the street, doing the same thing — a classic "revolving door," Donaldson says.

"I don't have a particular affection for homeless people," he says. "I have a particular grievance toward wasting my time."

Now, he knows most of the homeless people in the Town 'N Country area by name. He visits them regularly and asks them what they need to get off the street.

He mediates quarrels, pushes them to apply for jobs and fills out Social Security applications for the disabled.

He calls it simply the "homeless initiative."

So far, he says, he's gotten 52 off the street.

• • •

A call comes in, and Donaldson heads to a Taco Bell. He walks inside.

"Deputy Donaldson!" a woman says with a big smile.

It's Wendy Williams, a 39-year-old who has been homeless for three years.

"What's going on?" Donaldson asks. Then he sees the large can of lighter fluid — butane for her cigarette lighter — resting on her table.

"You can't have that out," he tells her. It might scare people, he says.

She has no ill intentions. It's just part of her backpack full of belongings. But she puts it away.

As Donaldson walks away to order lunch, she says, "He's not a pushover. He's very stern. But he's helped a lot of people. He's helping me."

Donaldson asks Williams about the status of her money order. She needs one to get her birth certificate from her native Canada. It's the first step toward getting public assistance, such as disability income.

She's not sure how to get one using Canadian currency, the required mode of payment. So Donaldson drives to Bank of America and volunteers to run Williams' money through his account. It nice being the good cop.

"I've been the heavy for years and years," he says as he waits.

"Something magical happens when that same officer goes out there and helps."

• • •

Sometimes, Donaldson's role is less cop, more dad.

On a recent afternoon, he got a call from Bob Andrews, a man he calls a "friend of the homeless."

Andrews is poor himself, and lives at the Suburban Lodge in Town 'N Country. About eight months ago, he took in a homeless man with a developmental disability.

The boarder pays a couple of hundred dollars a month in rent with Social Security income Donaldson helped him get reinstated.

But Andrews and his boarder have had enough of each other.

His guest is being childish, Andrews says inside of his small efficiency unit and he's smoking pot.

Donaldson walks outside where the boarder is sulking. He says Andrews has been unfair, bothersome and accusatory.

Donaldson tells the man to come inside. When he glares at the ground, the deputy demands eye contact.

"Bob's your friend," he says firmly. "I don't know what the big to-do is."

He tells Andrews to monitor his renter closely and warns the renter that if doesn't shape up, he could be on the streets again.

"If I have to be a parent, I have to be a parent," Donaldson says as he walks back to his car. "Sometimes they need a kick in the pants."

• • •

Most homeless people want to get off the streets, Donaldson says. That's one of the first questions he asks.

The Sheriff's Office doesn't have protocol. Donaldson just asks the questions that make sense to him.

Do you want help? Do you get disability? Do you have family nearby?

He hooks up people with job opportunities, drives them to alcohol treatment centers and homeless shelters. He helps them fill out social service applications and follows up again and again.

His supervisor, Master Sgt. Gil Sainz, says Donaldson thrives with a challenge.

"He's just very creative," Sainz says. "He wheels and deals to get things accomplished."

Donaldson says it takes time to get people off the streets. But he's in no hurry.

"Just think if I had started this 15 years ago," he says.

Already, he's got another deputy doing similar checks near the University of South Florida. The effort is growing slowly, organically. And that's the way he likes it.

When county commissioners recognized him in May and eagerly asked how they could help replicate his program, he declined.

"I don't want a complicated model," he said then. "I like to keep it simple."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough deputy helps homeless people with firm hand, big heart 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 10:37pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. After huge sinkhole opens, residents weigh future with unease

    Public Safety

    LAND O'LAKES — The wood floors creak each time Kendra Denzik dashes inside her darkened home to grab fresh clothes. She can't help but panic when they do.

    Eleven families along Ocean Pines Drive in Land O’Lakes homes are fenced in due to the massive sinkhole from last Friday on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The Doohen’s are among 11 families who had to evacuate from their homes.
  2. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members

    News

    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  3. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion

    Markets

    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  4. Photo gallery: Minors also a training ground for umpires with big-league dreams

    News

    Taylor Payne, 24, and Tom Fornarola, 23, are two of the 23 first-year umpires scattered around the bottom rungs of minor-league baseball this summer. They never met until they were assigned together but quickly developed a strong rapport. Like the players themselves, the two umpires have dreams of reaching the major …

  5. Minors also a training ground for umpires with big-league dreams

    The Heater

    Umpire Tom Fornarola, 23, left, and Taylor Payne, 24, facing, talk before the start of the Gulf Coast League game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla. on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.