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As chill grips Tampa Bay area, homeless shelters swell

David Firman, 48, settles in for the night Wednesday at the Northside Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which served as a cold-night shelter for about 60 homeless people. “If you’re out on the street, this place is heaven,” Firman said.

LARA CERRI | Times

David Firman, 48, settles in for the night Wednesday at the Northside Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which served as a cold-night shelter for about 60 homeless people. “If you’re out on the street, this place is heaven,” Firman said.

For the second frigid night in a row, Pinellas homeless shelters overflowed beyond their 450-bed capacity Wednesday, a trend that shelter officials said spotlights the area's growing homeless population.

The jammed shelters prompted Michael Amidei, the county coordinator for cold-night homeless shelters, to issue a public plea for blankets, warm clothing and money. He also stated a "critical need" for sandwiches after shelters went through 600 over two nights.

The economy is most likely to blame for the increase in people heading to shelters, said Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless director Sarah Snyder.

The most recent study estimates there are 1,229 homeless people in Pinellas County, but that number is two years old and officials believe the actual number is much higher. A new count will be conducted next week.

The wind chill Wednesday night made it feel as low as the teens in Citrus and Hernando counties, while Pinellas and Hillsborough wind-chill factors dipped into the 20s. The cold shelters open when wind chill reaches 40 or below.

Farmers all over Tampa Bay also braced themselves for another hard-freeze warning that threatened crops Wednesday night. Most seemed to fare okay after the early Wednesday chill, but were planning to closely check their crops through this morning.

What seemed to be of greater concern was how to keep the area's homeless warm and safe. Volunteers in vans picked up hundreds of them from all over Pinellas, then dropped them at the county's nine shelters.

The capacity at Northside Baptist Church on 38th Avenue N was 60 people. But by 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were 68 people there and more were on the way.

None seemed disappointed to be there. They ate hot dogs, chili pasta, pudding and peaches, and watched Superman on TV.

"If you're on the street, this place is heaven," said David Firman, 48, who lost his job at an arbor company six months ago. "It's such a relief. It's like a weight taken off your shoulders, knowing I don't have to sleep outside tonight."

At Northwest Presbyterian Church, shelter coordinator Jim Leiby had 89 people register for the shelter. Nine of them were women. Two, an 82-year-old and an 89-year-old, were World War II veterans.

"I'm only supposed to have 75 people, but I don't turn anybody away," Leiby said.

The rub was that he had only 82 mattresses. Asked how he would accommodate the extras, Leiby said some of the men chose to stay up all night.

At Pinellas Hope, the county's tent city for homeless, more than 200 residents were given the option of going to a shelter. None chose to go, said facilities manager Angelia Mosley.

"The sleeping bags keep them warm, and we give them gloves and blankets," she said.

In Tampa, resources weren't as scarce. The Salvation Army's freeze shelter on Florida Avenue filled with about 200 adults Tuesday night. The shelter usually has bunks left over, but this time it ran out of bunks on the men's side, so some had to sleep on mats. About 60 others were rerouted to the overflow shelter at Hyde Park United Methodist.

In general, Hillsborough County shelters had enough food and supplies to get through another night, said Homeless Recovery Program supervisor Jim Silverwood.

The weather is expected to begin warming up today. Highs could reach the 60s in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and the 50s in Pasco and Hernando. Lows will plunge into the 30s and 40s again tonight. Most of Tampa Bay will see temperatures rise into the 70s Friday.

Times staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

Fast facts

How to help

For more information on the Pinellas shelters, call Michael Amidei at (727) 543-2600 or Cliff Smith at (727) 464-8448. If you'd like to donate sandwiches or supplies, please take them to the shelter closest to you. A list of shelters and their addresses in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is at
links.tampabay.com.

As chill grips Tampa Bay area, homeless shelters swell 01/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 7:36am]
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