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One warm heart helps to 'heat the streets'

Published Dec. 6, 2006

For Marisa McFarlane, the sad disconnect was too much to bear.

In parts of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater where there are tall buildings, fancy cars and well-established businesses, she saw homeless people sleeping in nooks and empty buildings.

"There's something wrong with this picture," said the 29-year-old single mother and mortgage broker. "I pass these people every day in and it hit me - I've got to do something."

So early last week, with the help of a couple of friends, McFarlane began e-mailing everyone she knew, asking for clothes, shoes, toothbrushes - "anything that can help." She drove around loading up her Ford Explorer and began handing out the items in downtown St. Petersburg.

Today, she heads for Clearwater. And by next week, she expects to be in Tampa.

"I've been running around like a madwoman, trying to collect things - from New Port Richey to Riverview - we're getting completely overwhelmed," she said.

McFarlane, who lives in St. Petersburg, hasn't quit her day job with Bay Mortgage Lending, but she has "finally found my passion."

Heartbreaking work

In the past week, she has sought support from local media to spread her word about her "Heat the Streets" campaign.

She's trying to set up dropoff points, so people can donate items. And, she's also trying to get a little more organized.

In the meantime, though, she'll continue a grass roots effort that has her running frantically around the bay area, collecting as much as she can pack into her SUV and then quickly handing it over it to anyone who looks like they could use a pair of shoes, a shirt or a blanket.

"It's never enough, but we want to help these people - it's getting cold at night and the things we take for granted, these people are so thankful for," she said.

The work for her is rewarding, but it's also heartbreaking.

Sunday, near Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg, she talked emotionally about a 20-year-old Cambodian man she recently met.

The young man's father died before the family could get a home. The state took away his younger brother and sister. He speaks very little English and cannot find them, and can barely survive.

In the meantime, he prays every night to be reunited with his mother, who is still in Cambodia and whose picture he wears in a locket around his neck. If he had money, he said, the first thing he'd do is call her.

"We're going to reunite his family," McFarlane said Sunday, holding back tears.

Dressed for success

Her work can also come with some uneasy moments, she said.

At times, people reach and grab for the clothes. Other times, when she's surrounded, it can be daunting, even intimidating.

She said she tries to be careful, but she doesn't want anyone to feel left out.

"It's a little scary, but I guess I like adventure," she said. "I can't say I didn't have an exciting day. But it felt good."

On Sunday, she made her way around the park, telling people that if they needed clothes, then wait by her SUV. She made her way back when there were more than 25 people, all eager for something new to wear and something nice to sleep on.

"This is really something good," said 52-year-old Marvin Warren, who has been homeless since losing his job three weeks ago.

Warren met McFarlane earlier this week when she gave him a blue T-shirt and some black jeans. He got another shirt Sunday and says he'll wear it to a job interview next week. He hopes to have a job at McDonald's soon.

'She's my hero'

McFarlane's friends say she's been an inspiration.

"She's my hero," said Richard Lowe, a 28-year-old veteran who returned last year from Iraq and is now with the Coast Guard.

Piano teacher Diane Ludes, another friend, says she and McFarlane are also trying to get the program a nonprofit status.

But, they said, they're not sure when they'll have time. Still, even if they don't they won't quit doing what they're doing.

That's good news for Jeannetta Hall, 35, who was released eight days ago from the Pinellas County Jail.

"It's really tough to get clothes - I have no money," she said. "And I'm not sure what I'd do without them helping me."

Mike Donila can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or


What you can do

To help or to donate items to the "Heat the Streets" campaign, call (813) 727-5531 or e-mail Marisa McFarlane at mb_mcfarlane @verizon. net.