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Homeless in Holiday find an ally in deputy

HOLIDAY

The rain has ended and the sun is setting. Pasco sheriff's Cpl. Royce Rodgers is rolling down Mile Stretch Boulevard, looking for someone. He turns into Holiday Village Trailer Park, a handful of homes hidden by tall fences and a fire station. For the area's homeless people, like the man he seeks, it's one of a shrinking number of places they can be dry without being clean. As Rodgers pulls through the lane, the man walks in front of the car and recognizes him. Scotty knows why the corporal is here. It's not to arrest him, though that's happened before. Rodgers is here to give him shoes.

"Man, my feet are hamburger," Scotty says as Rodgers gets out of the car.

"Can't have you going without shoes," Rodgers replies. He gets out a shoebox and hands Scotty brand-new black sneakers with a $20 tag still attached.

Homeless people in Holiday know Rodgers and know the deal: if they mind the law, he'll take care of them.

Unmarried at 42, Rodgers feels his peak has passed. He wants more good days, and days like this are the best. He thinks Pasco's homeless are too often treated as less than human. To him, treating them with dignity and receiving their praise is more than a good deed, it's a reminder his job is worth doing.

Still, the pay stinks, and there are unpleasant realities surrounding Scotty and others who share his experience.

As Rodgers drives away, he mutters, "He better not sell those."

• • •

On U.S. 19, the Pappas Plaza strip mall looks like any other. Dimming neon signs and sun-bleached blacktop. Most deputies avoid it, Rodgers says, and Holiday as a whole for that matter. But Rodgers loves it.

He calls the place his beat, home base, the epicenter. He patrols throughout District 3, which covers Trinity and Holiday. But if not responding to a call or doing paperwork at the office on Trinity Boulevard, he's at Pappas Plaza. He keeps his window down so people can easily walk up to chat.

At about 6 feet and 262 pounds, Rodgers is easy to spot. That's how he wants it. Being seen means people know the Sheriff's Office is paying attention. But tight budgets mean fewer deputies, and fewer deputies means he's often pinned down on calls, which means he's not out patrolling.

So whenever he can, he focuses on this crucial aspect of police work: building relationships.

• • •

After sundown and in between calls, Rodgers looks for Scotty again. He wonders whether the shoes have been traded or sold to buy beer.

At a bus stop on U.S. 19, he sees someone sitting alone on the bench, but it's not Scotty.

It's Ed, asleep and sitting upright. Five empty beer cans lay at his feet.

Rodgers knows him well. In the last three years, he's arrested Ed at least six times. He's almost always drunk, Rodgers says, and he rarely sees him eat. Someone told him Ed has prostate cancer, but he's not sure.

Living like that, Rodgers wonders how he's not dead. He drives onto the sidewalk and pulls in front of the bus stop. Under dim lights, Ed's swollen belly and protruding ribs move.

"Well, he's not dead," Rodgers says.

He puts his car in park and decides to watch over him until the next call.

Working with homeless people sometimes feels like babysitting, he says, but most aren't like Ed.

In 2013, there were about 3,305 homeless in Pasco most days, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County. Some have been homeless for years, some come and go, and others are soon to leave and never come back. The majority mind their own business, Rodgers says, but there are a handful who cause problems.

Ed is one.

Their routine goes like this: panhandle until they make about $4 (the cost of a four-pack), get drunk, find a place to sleep, get up the next day and do it again. Rodgers breaks the cycle when he takes them to jail, usually for minor crimes like panhandling, trespassing or public intoxication.

When they get out, they come back to Pappas Plaza.

The bus stop is there. The trailer park is right behind the Subway. Just up U.S. 19 there's an abandoned clinic for shelter in the winter months — someone staying there recently left behind their family photos. And to the south there's a hollowed-out department store.

Tonight, Ed has chosen the bus stop as home. He's all alone, so Rodgers watches him until the radio announces a robber on the loose in New Port Richey.

Flying up U.S. 19 at about 100 mph, Rodgers is thinking about helping other deputies catch the guy, but he still worries about Scotty's shoes.

• • •

After sitting in a median with his lights on for about an hour, Rodgers is fed up. He joined almost every other deputy in west Pasco to establish a perimeter, and still the robbery suspect got away. Meanwhile, no one's in Holiday on patrol. Typical.

He shoots back down U.S. 19 to find Scotty.

Most deputies park alongside each other and chat between calls. Not Rodgers. So many deputies are new to the agency, he says. He doesn't know them well. He'd rather talk to the people he knows.

Spending time in Holiday has allowed him to see successes and failures. One guy, Ron, was homeless for a time but got a job. He came to Rodgers one day and said, "Thanks for that pizza."

Others don't fare as well. He still misses the young mother who would walk up every day and say hey.

She died of pneumonia in November.

When he gets back to the bus stop, Ed is awake, throwing a ball with Scotty. He is wearing his shoes.

"You didn't think I'd sell them, did you?" Scotty asks.

Rodgers just laughs, says good night and drives off. His 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift is almost over.

Contact Gage Bentley at gbentley@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6250. Follow @gagebentley.

Homeless in Holiday find an ally in deputy 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 10:31am]
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