PINELLAS PARK — The morning was quiet on the wooden patio overlooking the field of tents.
A table stood piled with cellphones charging. A man hosed down a walkway nearby. Kevin Arneman and Rick Peete sat in plastic chairs, remembering.
"Never ever think that you are above becoming homeless," said Peete, 61.
"I went straight from the middle class to being nowhere," said Arneman, 46.
Peete had lived in shelters, a mobile home park and on the streets after a slow decline that started when he lost his job during the recession. Arneman had been kicked out of the house by his family and had nowhere to go. But luckily, both agreed, they made it to Pinellas Hope, a shelter owned and operated by the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg.
The facility opened as a temporary outdoor shelter for homeless adults in response to St. Petersburg's increasingly visible homeless population. It came to a head in 2007 when police officers slashed tents at a homeless camp near downtown.
Formed as a partnership among Pinellas County, the city of St. Petersburg and Catholic Charities, the refuge was supposed to stay open for only five months. But 10 years later, it has expanded from a small tent city to a facility that includes about 160 tents, 156 apartments and 72 recently added "Hope Cottages" made from shipping containers, 10 of which are set aside for medical respite.
The shelter also provides social services, transportation and three meals a day. Since the December 2007 opening, it has assisted more than 7,700 people with about 3,800 moving on to stable housing, according to Pinellas Hope figures.
"I am on my knees in thanks," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who led the city during the homeless crisis and through Pinellas Hope's development, during an anniversary celebration this month. "It provides an awful lot of people with an awful lot of hope."
But before it was the sweeping facility of today, the site near 49th Street N and 126th Avenue was swampland with an unknown future.
"It is an experiment," said Frank Murphy, president of the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, at the time.
Sheila Lopez, former chief operating officer of Catholic Charities, was there at the beginning as work began to clear the woods and fill in the soggy land. She slept in her car to supervise her charges, the homeless men and women who had been brought from the streets and the steps of City Hall in downtown St. Petersburg.
"They call her the Mother of Pinellas Hope," said Cliff Smith, St. Petersburg's manager of veterans, social and homeless services.
Smith, who was working for Pinellas County Health and Human Services during Pinellas Hope's early days, remembers the wooded, low-lying, swampy expanse that had been donated by the diocese for the new tent city.
"It was full-grown marsh pits, and the city of St. Pete brought out the bush hogs and front loaders," said St. Petersburg Police Officer Rich Linkiewicz, the city's homeless outreach officer. "They literally cleared about 8 acres of property."
In the weeks before the camp opened, Linkiewicz, known on the streets as Officer Rich, said he distributed fliers telling the homeless about plans for the tent city.
"Within that first week, I moved approximately 300 people from St. Petersburg to Pinellas Hope," he said. "Catholic Charities brought out buses. It was a major operation to bring everybody out here and set them up."
The camp started out with about 75 tents, Murphy said. Catholic Charities initially set up its administrative offices and homeless services in two trailers from St. Petersburg College. Also on the property was a large tent where people ate and another with televisions and games.
Organizers soon added more tents, then expanded the facility to include efficiency apartments and a community center, kitchen and boardwalk eating area in 2010. At the end of 2015, Pinellas Hope added the first Hope Cottage, a shipping container split into air-conditioned rooms with bunks and windows.
A room in one of the cottages is where Peete was staying this month as he prepared for knee surgery. He had just moved there from the tents, where he stayed when he first arrived in July. He spends his days working in the kitchen and going to counseling to cope with residual grief from a car accident in 1990 that killed his wife and young daughter.
"I gave up," he said. "I want to do more with my life than just give up."
Arneman lives in one of the studio apartments, where he's paying $294 a month as a percentage of his income from disability assistance. It's a place to call his own with donated furniture, a DVD collection and an antenna to catch a few TV channels.
He recently signed his second-year lease.
"I like it here. It's nice, it's peaceful," Arneman said. "I'll stay as long as they'll have me."
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