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Not a shelter, not a food pantry, but a refuge for the homeless

Steven Jameson, 36, left, and Joe Gustafson, 31, listen to Pastor Keith Stanton's sermon during Sunday church service at The Refuge. Gabriella Angotti-Jones | Times
Published Nov. 23, 2017

CLEARWATER - As the sun rose Sunday morning, they woke up on somebody's couch, in bushes by the waterfront, on a bench in a park.

Some walked, others hitched a ride, to the little church just outside of downtown. They smoked cigarettes on plastic chairs outside and filled up on pastries, eggs and coffee before taking their seats.

This week's sermon was about how God had a plan for their lives and loved each and every one of them more than we can understand.

When the band finished playing a set of soaring Christian hymns, the group of about 50 stood and held hands in a circle around the pews. One by one, they said what they were grateful for:

"I'm thankful I woke up today."

"I'm thankful for hope and love."

"I'm thankful for sobriety."

But over and over again, thanks was given for this sanctuary. For Shaun and Michele Powers, who opened the Refuge to give the homeless a place to feel wanted, a daily respite from the unpredictability of their lives.

"I'm thankful for this church," said Melissa Figueroa, 42, who months earlier was on the streets with two children. "This is our family."

Early last year, Christopher Seeholzer was sitting at the Seminole Boat Ramp, where he slept the night before, when a clean-cut guy came walking straight toward him.

"I just thought, 'uh oh, what did I do now,'?" Seeholzer remembers.

Shaun Powers and his wife, Michele, had just started the Refuge and were trying to spread the word that from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Friday, he was welcome to take a load off, grab a cup of coffee.

Having worked nearly 30 years at St. Paul United Methodist Church, Shaun had always focused on mission service.

Now in new jobs as an audio technician and a medical videographer, he was looking for a different way to give back. Michele, an office manager for a roofing company, said that while serving meals downtown, they noticed the homeless often had no place to go during the day.

"We just felt more needed to be done," Michele said. "They were up and down the street. There was no purpose for them other than to get up in the morning and go around doing their thing."

They saw a for sale sign in front of the aging church on Alden Avenue while hosting a clothing drive in the grassy lot across the street. They took it as an omen.

Shaun used the $50,000 in his retirement savings as a down payment. A group of homeless men the couple met while serving food and handing out clothes helped get the building up to code.

They ripped up old carpet, painted walls, tidied up the main room with couches, and readied the kitchen for cooking.

William Hanley III, 47, heard about the Refuge on the street and got curious.

Raised in group homes in New York, Henley said, "I've been a transient my whole life" and might always be.

He has never felt able to plant roots anywhere. His bipolar disorder and drinking don't make it easy.

With experience in construction, Henley installed drywall ceiling, helping the church officially open in February 2016. It's something he thinks about every time he walks through the doors.

"I can look up and see there's a mark of me on this place," Henley said. "This is a place we can come and recharge our spiritual batteries."

• • •

The Refuge is not a homeless shelter. It's not a soup kitchen. They can't quite define it.

Clearwater police Lt. Rodney Johnson, who heads the homeless task force, said the Powers are reaching a niche in the homeless community usually overlooked by service organizations.

The addicts, the homeless who have burned all of their bridges, the ones who otherwise would be sitting in front of businesses passing time.

"They know them all, they know their backstories, they know what they are doing and when they are up to no good," Johnson said. "Nobody else is filling that gap."

While Shaun and Michele — neither of whom takes a salary from the Refuge — are at their day jobs, a trusted team of homeless volunteers opens the doors each morning and locks up in the afternoons.

The visitors during the week maintain the lawn, clean the restrooms and enforce the rules of no drugs, no drinking and no fighting.

The water and lights stay on, coffee in stock, and Sunday morning breakfast is supplied through steady contributions of about 10 donors who are not homeless, Michele said.

Other than Wednesday morning Bible study and Sunday service, there is no consistent programming. Instead, Shaun and Michele learn every visitor's story and evaluate what they can do for each individual.

They take people every Wednesday to the laundromat. They've driven people to get IDs, brought in barbers, paid for eye exams. They've stood by bedsides in the emergency room and tracked down family members. Most days they arrange transportation from the Refuge to Liberty Staffing in Largo for anyone seeking day work.

In Joe Gustafson, 31, Shaun saw something special.

"He picked up on the fact I was trying," Gustafson said. "I'm young and not trying to end up in the homeless rut forever."

Gustafson got hooked on cocaine, heroin and Oxycontin while living in Indianapolis and spent two years homeless. After a stint in jail, he moved to Florida to start over.

He found the Refuge through word of mouth. He quit doing drugs. Got a job at a call center.

Shaun vouched for Gustafson and persuaded a landlord to rent out an apartment without a deposit — a barrier that keeps many from permanent housing.

"It's our calling," Shaun said. "It's simple. To share love and earn their trust and let them let us help them. My thought is this is not our church, it's their church."

• • •

Michele said there is still much more she'd like to do. Her dream is to build a facility on the property with beds and showers.

She knows the chronically homeless, some drug and alcohol addicts and mentally ill, may not be able to transition easily to permanent housing.

"But our goal is to help them if they want help, to get them jobs if they want jobs," she said.

Figueroa, who held her 2-year-old grandson while giving thanks for the Refuge in the prayer circle Sunday, credits the church for getting on her feet.

Unable to work because of a hand injury, she floated between friends' houses and wherever she could find a place to sleep after being evicted from her apartment last year. She began volunteering at the Refuge, folding clothes and cleaning, while securing an apartment through the charity Directions for Living. She had no belongings when she moved into a rental.

Then, to her surprise, she saw Shaun pulling up with a truckload of furniture.

"It's a family here, it's a home, it's a safe haven," Figueroa said. "When people don't show up like usual, we go looking for them. We visit them in jail. We get them bus tickets. I don't know what would have become of me without this."

Because the Refuge runs purely on donations, Michele said she's banking on faith they'll be able to continue.

But as of September, they were in default on the building. After the down payment last year, they were contracted to pay the remaining $159,000 to owners New Destiny Worship Center by September.

New Destiny issued a foreclosure notice, but pastor Anthony Ballestero said Monday that he "hopes that they will be able to secure the necessary financing which will allow them to continue serving our community."

Michele has faith donors will come through before the end of the year.

It's why she hung an engraved wooden plaque with her favorite Scripture above the chapel's stage.

"If you have faith as small as a mustard seed …" it reads

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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