ST. PETERSBURG — Joey Phillips saw this coming.
Unable to find steady work for more than two years, the 44-year-old former security guard warned his roommate and landlord he was running out of money. He began eating at soup kitchens.
On Jan. 14 about 7 a.m., he handed over his keys, walked out of his 15th Street N apartment and joined the growing ranks of people living on the streets of a city named one of the meanest in the country toward the homeless.
Then he made a surprising discovery: It's not so bad.
Free food and clothing are everywhere. He can get a shower when he needs one at a shelter. If his bike is stolen, the police will replace it for free. When he wants a quiet place to read free books or watch movies, he knows where to go.
He has had offers to be placed in a shelter, but he refuses to go.
"All I want is a job," he said. "Everything else, I have here."
• • •
Phillips doesn't fit the homeless stereotype. He doesn't drink or do drugs. He says he has worked since he was 15, and records show he has been licensed as a security guard and commercial driver.
He has never been arrested. He says he has never panhandled. If he is mentally unstable, it doesn't come across in everyday conversation.
He has always been a bit of a loner, having grown up a "hyperactive child" in seven different foster homes, he said. His parents were alcoholics, as is his brother who lives in Tampa, he said. He said he scored high on his SATs. Records show he spent three years at the University of Maryland before dropping out.
Yet he hasn't mastered staying in one place or at one job for long. And now he has been forced into a new kind of routine.
Every morning about 6, Phillips wakes up on the steps of City Hall, among rows of other homeless people, and sets out on his bike. He says he has applied for jobs at just about every fast-food restaurant, laundromat and mom-and-pop shop in the vicinity of downtown. He uses free phones at hospitals to see if potential employers have made a decision.
"It can be exhausting and frustrating," Phillips said. "Sometimes I need a day off."
He keeps a pretty regular schedule.
As the sun rises, he likes to read the newspaper in the park by the Vinoy hotel. He's an avid reader and loves the library. He has made friends with folks at the Sunshine Senior Center, where he likes to listen to health seminars and not long ago watched a free screening of Julie & Julia.
He doesn't travel far for meals. On a sunny Tuesday morning in late February, a pastor set out doughnuts, coffee and bottled water on a table at Mirror Lake. At 11 a.m., Phillips went to the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter for a hot dog and potato salad.
At 5 p.m., Donnie the Chicken Man pulled up in a van. Volunteers handed out containers of fried chicken, vegetables, a roll and packets of juice, something they do four days a week.
Phillips gave his container away to a man who walked up too late to get one, and he pedaled over to Beacon House, a men's shelter on Central Avenue, where he ate roasted chicken, sweet potatoes and a poppy seed muffin.
Between meals, Phillips said, there are usually plenty of good Samaritans who hand out sandwiches, fruit and other snacks, which he saves for breakfast. He and others on the street have heard rumors that Mayor Bill Foster is trying to stop all the free handouts, though St. Vincent and Beacon House representatives haven't heard this.
"If he wants to get rid of the homeless downtown, cutting off the food would do it," he said.
With the free sleeping bag he got from a recent homeless expo, free clothes from the Beacon House, free books and movies, free food and no bad habits to support, Phillips has little need for cash. In the nearly two months he has been on the street, he said, he has spent just a few bucks.
• • •
Phillips is a puzzle to St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz, whose sole job is to get homeless people off the streets and into stable situations. He recently offered to get Phillips into Pinellas Hope, the tent city in mid-Pinellas County. Phillips prefers the streets, saying Pinellas Hope is too far from downtown.
"Anyone who chooses to sleep on the streets has to have some sort of mental illness," Linkiewicz said.
For one, he said, it's dangerous. Street people are known to steal from one another or assault each other for cash and belongings. Mental illness is, in fact, rampant among those who sleep downtown. Drug addiction and alcoholism are common.
And then there are quite a few St. Petersburg ordinances that make life tough for the homeless. Phillips received a citation for public urination last month shortly after waking up at City Hall. He thinks police were targeting him and others, hitting them with citations to punish them for being on the street.
But he's dealing with it. Pinellas holds a monthly Homeless Court, designed to deal with people who have misdemeanors.
On Feb. 27, Phillips went to the Homeless Court at the Salvation Army and lawyer Ken Lark offered to represent him for free. They asked the judge for an extension while they set up a plan to get the public urination charge dropped.
Lark had never worked with the homeless and was surprised when he met Phillips. "He's definitely not your stereotypical homeless guy," he said.
Still, he worried about Phillips. He wondered if maybe there was an undiagnosed learning disability or personality disorder that could be setting up the slide to chronic homelessness.
"Don't know why he chooses to keep himself in that state," Lark said. "He seems bright, knowledgeable, kind, knows a lot of people. It seems like he could be a productive, viable part of this community."
Phillips insists he doesn't want to be homeless and doesn't consider himself homeless.
"I consider myself a success who hit a bump in the road," he said.
He doesn't want a handout, or a shelter bed, or a case worker.
"If I could just get a job," he said.
After he recited a Shakespeare sonnet to a reporter, he got on his bike and rode off for the hundredth time to find work.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.