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Clearwater couple living in SUV finds ways to shower, stay cool, keep dogs

Marc and Marsha Broner, evicted from their Clearwater home, are part of Tampa Bay’s chronically homeless population.

LARGO — It was about 10 a.m. when Marsha Broner parked her black 2005 Chevy Trailblazer in a favorite shaded spot and rolled down the windows.

She and husband Marc Broner were still there five hours later, near the Publix at East Bay Drive and Belcher Road, shifting restlessly in the front seats while watching videos on his cellphone. Muffin and Koko, a pair of straggly, Chihuahua-mix dogs, wriggled on their laps. A container of leftover pasta grew cold on the cluttered dashboard.

To hear the Broners tell it, they were evicted and their mobile home demolished because of a plan to rid High Point Village Mobile Home Park of disabled tenants.

Court records tell a different story. The couple owed $640 in rent, according to an eviction filing. Marsha was also cited for animal hoarding and failure to provide humane care to 13 flea-ridden dogs that county animal inspectors found at their home.

Since July 2018, their SUV has been the Broners’ home. The couple receive disability and social security but apartment complexes have refused to rent to them, sometimes citing the animal hoarding citation that comes up in Marsha’s background check.

This is the sharp end of chronic homelessness, families who have been on the street or in shelters for at least a year because of issues like physical disability, serious mental illness or substance abuse.

Helping them requires more than just putting a roof over their heads.

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“People tend to lose their housing because they don’t have support and care to advocate for them and wraparound them with the appropriate treatment,” said Kevin Marrone, chief operating officer for Boley Centers in St. Petersburg, a non-profit that provides treatment, rehabilitation and housing services. “People with mental health issues have behavioral issues that, without care, the regular community doesn’t understand, landlords don’t understand.”

That’s why federal grants now are more likely to go to programs that provide permanent supportive housing. These programs pair accommodation with a support system that includes a case manager who will visit almost daily and bring in services like health care and therapy and, if needed, help in finding work.

Assessments showed that about 450 families in Pinellas County needed this level of support during the past two years.

But the care is expensive and places are limited.

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Boley Centers has 48 apartments offering permanent supportive housing for families and is building another 145. Pinellas Hope, a charity run by the Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, also offers permanent supportive housing in 80 efficiency apartments.

When apartments become available, they are allocated based on an assessment of a family’s vulnerability. Agencies also place chronically homeless in other accommodation but without the accompanying care. The risk is they will end up homeless again.

“It really doesn’t provide the level of assistance that they need,” said Susan Myers, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, “We don’t have enough resources to house everyone.”

It was alarmingly easy for the Broners to slide into homelessness.

A transplant from New York, Marc, 54, was a paralegal in his most recent job. Marsha, 63, worked in fast-food restaurants. They were both bikers, sharing a 1997 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Hugger and attending local biker events and concerts.

But Marc had to stop working because of seizures, spinal problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. His wife retired to take care of him. The Harley was sold to cover the costs of moving to Clearwater.

Evicted from their mobile home, Marsha and Marc Broner have been living with dogs Koko and Muffin for 16 months in their Chevrolet Trailblazer. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Animal services, local code enforcement and the Florida Department of Children and Families were notified about conditions in the couple’s Clearwater mobile home, county records show.

An animal inspector’s report noted that dozens of cockroaches scurried out every time the front door was opened. When a DCF case officer visited a week later, the couple refused to let him in.

Just over a month later, after living there 10 years, they were evicted, taking only what they could fit in their car. They were forced to give up all their dogs except Muffin and Koko.

In the first few months afterward, Marc posted frequently on Facebook, blaming the manager of the mobile home park where they used to live.

Over time, the posts became less frequent. The last came in May. “We’re homeless, living in our vehicle," it began. Only three of his 122 Facebook friends responded, each the same way. A single click — a sad face.

Homeless for 16 months, the Broners still didn’t get counted in a survey that showed more than 1,200 Pinellas families were homeless at some point during the past two years. Another 1,700 Hillsborough County families experienced homelessness over the same period.

In Pinellas, many of these families are identified by five street outreach teams that look for homeless people and encourage them to accept help. But it can be hard to spot families living in cars or motels.

“This population tends to get missed much more than homeless individuals,” said Marrone. “Families tend to be more hidden, they’re living doubled up with friends for as long as they can.”

Evicted from their mobile home, Marsha and Marc Broner have been living with dogs Koko and Muffin for 16 months in their Chevrolet Trailblazer. They wash in gas station rest rooms, joined a gym for the showers, and watch movies on a mobile phone. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

The Broners sought help at Pinellas Hope but said the shelter doesn’t accept dogs. They refuse to be parted from the animals. Marc says they comfort him when he is in pain.

At night, they park close to a gas station so they can use the restroom and get some food in the morning. Marsha sleeps with both dogs under a blanket. Marc can’t sleep laying down so he makes do with about two to three hours of sleep in the front seat then naps during the day.

The back of their SUV holds almost all their belongings — blankets, clothes, tools, pillows, a silver dog bowl. A portable air-conditioner is rigged to run off the car’s cigarette lighter.

Marc’s electric wheelchair is attached to a small, rear hitch mount. If he needs it, they charge the battery at a library.

They get through the long humid summers by finding shade, running the air-conditioner in half-hour blasts and giving the dogs ice water.

As much as they can, they carry on as if their lives are normal. They have bank accounts, cell phones, a post office and, because it has showers, a gym membership. Clothes are washed in a laundromat.

They typically turn down offers of food from shoppers because they’re not short of money. But with Marc’s disability, it is increasingly difficult to keep everything clean and to carry on with their lives.

“All we want is a place to live and normalcy,” Marc said.

Asked about the worst part of being homeless, Marsha covers her face and quietly sobs.

It takes a minute before she can speak.

“We’re treated as second class."