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Pinellas County's new homeless shelter opens in old jail annex

After four years of living under a bridge in Clearwater, Charley Hickey and girlfriend Lisa Greve had a shot at safety, steady food and a roof.

But that didn't eliminate their second thoughts about giving up their waterfront camp Thursday for Pinellas County's newest homeless shelter.

"We're kind of reluctant — we've been here for years," said Hickey, 61, as they waited at a park for an outreach team to pick them up.

Twenty-two men and seven women were admitted during the opening day of Pinellas Safe Harbor, a former bus garage and detention center near the county jail off 49th Street.

The goal is to run a place where homeless people arrested for minor offenses like public intoxication can stay, and, later, recently released convicts. Anyone voluntarily arriving could have three meals and shelter, with no time limits. They can leave when they want or arrive inebriated, but weapons aren't allowed.

In a county with a shortage of shelter space, Safe Harbor has room for 500.

But Sheriff Jim Coats and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster decided to start with a small opening to get the shelter off to a smooth start. Instead of a huge crowd, select homeless people were brought by three homeless outreach teams.

The biggest effort was outside St. Petersburg City Hall.

By Thursday morning, word spread among downtown St. Petersburg's homeless that the new shelter would open. When St. Petersburg police homeless outreach Officer Rich Linkiewicz showed up in a van at 11:30 to pick up his first seven people, about 25 people were waiting with their belongings in bags.

"Everybody just hold tight and bear with me," Linkiewicz told the group as they circled him.

Joseph Sendio, 53, hoped to try out the new shelter. He moved here from Washington over a year ago, hoping to get a job as a truck driver, but couldn't find work. He became homeless a few months ago.

"I'm tired of sleeping on concrete," Sendio said. "I've heard different things about this place, but a shelter is a shelter."

Sendio, who said he gained 60 pounds since becoming homeless and is borderline diabetic, hoped to get some bus passes to look for jobs while he's staying at the shelter.

Linkiewicz put the people he couldn't take Thursday on a waiting list.

Foster said he felt a mix of excitement, hope and nervousness, but was confident this shelter was a huge step toward solving the city's homeless problem.

"I'm excited for the opportunities that are being afforded to our homeless residents," Foster said. "I always thought we could do better than letting people sleep on the streets."

But not everything went by the script. A handful of people showed up on their own. A Largo police officer unexpectedly delivered a drunken man before 3 p.m., the last arrival. The Sheriff's Office had to add a lunch of ham sandwiches after not planning any.

The first person admitted was Willard Gatlin, 44, who arrived at 11:22 p.m. with sheriff's Deputy Tim Myers and social worker Janice Wiggins.

TV and newspaper cameras hovered as he registered and walked through a metal detector to stay in a pod with mats. Limping with a crutch for an injured foot, the out-of-work telemarketer said the shelter was a no-brainer if he wanted to stabilize his life. At least after the hubbub.

"Officer Myers kind of prepped me and told me it was going to be total chaos," he quipped.

Later, Myers and Wiggins drove to Clearwater, where they had arranged to pick up Hickey and Greve near their campsite.

When they arrived, Hickey and Greve, 53, were still reluctant to give up where they squatted and roamed. Even after Myers and Wiggins ruled out their fears — losing food stamps, no place to smoke, no storage — they hedged.

"We're not criminals. We're just in a little bit of a rough spot," Hickey said.

Ultimately they decided to give it a shot.

Together nine years, they had stuck to their camp, even after a state cleanup crew demolished their furnishings, Hickey said.

Each with arrest records, the couple said they made do by "flying a sign" — panhandling — when odd jobs didn't last.

A stint at Pinellas Hope ended because they weren't allowed to drink. Cans of Four Loko they had with their lunch in a park Thursday weren't on the menu.

"We drink," Greve said, shrugging.

Greve, a slight woman, will miss the safety of sleeping next to Hickey, a Marine veteran, at their camp. At the new shelter, men and women will be separated at night.

Assistant Public Defender Raine Johns greeted the couple as they arrived at the shelter. She had helped them out of legal scrapes in the past.

She could make no promises the couple would stay.

But Johns had another way to nudge them. If they married — an idea Greve gushed about — it could help them straighten their lives. Getting into the shelter would help smooth it even more. The couple lacked the money to get a license, though.

That's when Robert Marbut, a consultant on homelessness from Texas hired by St. Petersburg, offered to pay the fee.

Johns cleared another hurdle when she found a way to get a copy of Greve's birth certificate from Missouri.

"Charley, we're going to get married," she said, hugging him.

And Foster promised to handle the vows as a notary. Greve already has a wedding location.

Beachfront. Near their campsite.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

>>Fast facts

To learn more

For more information about Pinellas Safe Harbor, 14840 49th St., call (727) 464-8058 or go to safeharborpinellas.org.

Pinellas County's new homeless shelter opens in old jail annex 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 10:59pm]
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