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Portrait of the streets

There is no air conditioner in Anne Wellington Mills' research library.

It's more than 90 degrees when she arrives on a recent Wednesday morning. So Mills moves to the coolest available spot: in the back, under some flowering trees. She unpacks her big tablet and her black markers, then looks around Herman Massey Park.

She sees a chubby man sleeping restlessly atop a red brick planter. He kicks off a dirty green blanket as he rolls over, showing Mills a nasty gray-black bruise under his left eye. Behind her, a stick-thin man with wild gray hair is curled on a blanket, next to a shopping cart laden with boxes, books and blankets. Across the park a chunky woman in white shorts and a white hairnet sits cross-legged on a tree-shaded bench, fanning herself with a piece of newspaper.

This postage-stamp urban park, tucked into the northern end of downtown, is just one of the places where Mills does her studies. And these people, sleeping under dirty blankets and wearing yesterday's clothes, are her subjects.

Mills was born 43 years ago with a passion for sociology and a talent for portraits. For the past four years she has combined the two. Her master's thesis for a degree in sociology at the University of South Florida is part research, part artwork.

Mills has been sketching the homeless in Tampa and St. Petersburg for two years. It's more than a student project. It's a passion that started in the mid-1980s, when she was living in San Francisco, working as a graphic designer.

"There were so many people on the streets out there. I had a dream about this project. So I started drawing," she recalls.

At first, it was just a drawing project, but "as I worked on it, one thing led to another."

What it led to was a move to Florida to study sociology at USF. Her focus was field research on the homeless.

She knows her subject is not trendy. The homeless are yesterday's news.

"The novelty of it has worn off," she says. "People are tired of hearing about it."

But her field research confirms what the statistics say: There are more people than ever living on America's streets. Almost 52,000 in Florida. Some 6,400 living in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

"Popular thinking is that if people become homeless in America it is their own fault," she says. "Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't."

What Mills tries to do is put a face on the issue _ and provide living examples of life on the street.

To reach her subjects, she's volunteered at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa and at a St. Petersburg shelter called ASAP.

Her portraits of the homeless in Tampa and San Francisco hung in the Theater Two Gallery at USF in May and June. She has attracted the attention of Wanda Hellickson, who runs a north Tampa center for homeless veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

What Hellickson likes about Mills' work is that she doesn't depict the dark side of homelessness. Instead, she looks for the dignity and humanity of her subjects.

"She doesn't show the stereotypes. She sees the individuality of each person," Hellickson said.

USF art professor Theo Wujick met Mills in his drawing class. He was impressed not only by her skills, but also by her dedication.

"Her portrait works are very fine. Anne puts herself in some dangerous situations to acquire these drawings," he said.

Mills has had a few close calls. She doesn't carry money or valuables when she goes out. And she dresses down. For her day at Herman Massey Park, she wore old shorts, a cotton blouse. She pulls a cap over her thick brown hair. She hides her cool green eyes with sunglasses.

Mills scans the park. She is looking for Sam, a gardener and street preacher who has lived on the streets around downtown for three years. Sam has been missing for a few months now.

"I'm starting to worry about him," Mills says.

Part of documenting the lives of the homeless is losing them. People with no permanent address have a way of disappearing. Some move on. Some die. There's never a forwarding address.

"That's been a very frustrating part of doing this research," she says.

She wonders about Aaron, the Gaza Strip native and Vietnam veteran who was living under a Tampa freeway overpass when she sketched him. And Jesus, a trained airline mechanic who worked as a day laborer. When Mills found him, he had been robbed and abandoned. And there's Tex, an old alcoholic who was run over on Tampa Street as he crossed with his shopping cart and his dog. He recovered, but lost the use of his arm. Now, he too is gone.

Just then, a lone man walks slowly toward the park. He's small and slim and moves with the lightness of a dancer. His jeans and striped dress shirt are clean.

"I can't believe it, but that's him. That's Sam!" Mills says.

She moves quickly to catch him.

"Hey, Sam," she says. "How you doing? Where have you been?"

Sam smiles and nods, but it takes a moment before this face registers.

"Oh, you're my college girl. How you doin'?"

Mills pulls a Bible from her pack and hands it to Sam.

"I've been carrying this for you," she says. "You remember you asked me to get you a new Bible?"

Sam takes the book in both hands. He smiles, showing a mouth that is missing more than a few teeth.

Sam thanks her for the Bible. He says he spent the winter and spring in Miami. But he came back because he likes Tampa.

"You know, everybody been good to me here," he says.

Sam's not a drinker or a drug taker. He lives outside because he's grown to like the freedom of it. He has some regular supporters, and when they don't come through, he takes a sign out to the street corner.

"If I can do without it I will,' " Sam says of panhandling. "But if not, here I come."

Sam sits down on a tree-shaded bench. Mills sits across from him and pulls out her pad.

"Sam, do you mind if I sketch you?" she asks.

"No, ma'am, I don't mind it a bit," Sam says.

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