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Hillsborough deputy helps homeless people with firm hand, big heart


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

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