The first thing I noticed about this gathering of the homeless is that so many of them looked like me.
None of the 11 men and women sitting around the table would be taken for a Yale youth who has just leased his first BMW. On the other hand, none appeared likely to steal the hubcaps off that car.
This was the regular, everybody-welcome, 1-3 p.m. Thursday meeting of the homeless at the St. Petersburg main library. Some had come by bus; some without the fare had walked several miles from shelters, parks or vacant buildings.
"These are the motivated homeless," said Derek Chamblee, who earns his living as a telephone marketer, as he tries to organize homeless people to improve their lives.
"They need help in setting up groups to help one another," Chamblee adds. "They also need to be shown how to get what they're entitled to. That means bucking the bureaucrats who make it hard to get food stamps, medical care and bus passes to the jobs everybody tells them to look for."
Those at the meetings are asked to list "the major needs of the homeless in Pinellas County and the USA" and to write about those needs if they want to.
There was bitterness in some of the replies. A woman named Betty wrote: "Many places that offer sleeping overnight maybe with a bath or a crust of bread and weaken coffee are better than under a bridge in the cold or rain.
"But most places offer nothing for women, and they become street-walkers, shacking up or even jail.
"See, homeless are looked upon as dirty no-good druggies or alcoholics. Women are referred to as sluts looking for easy bucks. In some cases this is true, but why? Why have they ended up in this life?
"There are public, state and private organizations, but they offer just enough help to barely get you to the next day. Then, too many times you are turned down or away."
Certain themes echo through the writing. Shelters are too expensive. Most charge $7 to $10 per night for a dormitory bunk and one meal. And most won't allow people to stay more than a day or two.
And where can people clean up before a job interview? And how about some nice second-hand clothes to impress a boss to offer a job?
Transportation is always a problem. The homeless need bus passes to find jobs and to get to those jobs before they get their first paychecks.
Cheap housing should be a goal. "Need to lower some of rent at some of this place," wrote a man named Henry. "And stop turning us away so fast. Try to help. Make jobs."
"A half decent place in a half decent neighborhood," James suggests. "And possible vocational training."
Many of the homeless have serious health problems and sometimes do not, sometimes cannot, get medical treatment.
"My back is bad _ I can't work at all," says another man named James. "I been trying to get my Social Security disabled for over a year. But I don't have a place to live so nowhere to get my mail so lost out on SS. If they send stuff in mail, I don't get."
"Social Security is nearly impossible to obtain," says George. "Non-service-connected disability is routinely denied. Veterans services are hard to obtain."
George lists three personal needs: "Tennis shoes, size 13; help with transportation; way to do laundry."
A woman named Joann uses her space to thank God for His bounties, then makes two requests:
"I would like to have a handbag. And someone who cares about someone, even though you just met them today."