Thursday, September 17, 2009

Flooding latest nightmare for homeless in St.Petersburg

On my last full day in Florida, sister Sharon and I found Tent City, the city of St. Petersburg's latest attempt to solve its homeless problem.
Pinellas Hope, a 240-tent campground in a rundown area of Pinellas Park just north of the city, is run by Catholics. It offers one meal a day, rudimentary health checks and counseling and whatever people who have places they call home in the area are willing to donate.
As we drove up to the campground, we splashed through big mud puddles from heavy recent rains.
On our right, we passed an auto salvage yard. Mechanical wreckage of all shapes and sizes was strewn around a huge, fenced lot. The human salvage yard was on our left. People of all colors and ages milled about another fenced-in area. Their future was considerably less predictable than what was going to happen to the junkers across the street.
We went to the entrance of Tent City and talked with a woman who looked like she was in charge. She had been handing out dry clothing and words of encouragement to several people who lined up in front of her spartan office.
"The zipper on this doesn't work, but it buttons," the volunteer said, handing an older woman a pair of royal blue shorts. "It's all I have right now. Can you make it work?"
"Ya, it's better than what I got," the woman said, holding the garment up to eye level for quick inspection. The two smiled at each other. The woman with the shorts turned and hustled off toward the round, igloo-style tents, which stretched out as far as I could see.
I identified myself as a journalist and asked if someone could show us around the camp. I explained that I was on a short visit to Florida to visit my sister and was astounded at the number of homeless people we encountered on the streets in St. Petersburg. My sister and I wanted to find out more about the problem.
A survey by Florida social workers in 2008 indicated that St. Petersburg is the hometown of about 5,000 homeless people, which they believe is up about 10 percent from the previous year. I could not find survey numbers for this year during a check of the Internet.
The volunteer said a tour would be possible during normal times, but today was not a good day. No officials from Pinellas Hope were available to grant a tour and the cloud burst from the day before had turned the camp into a gray and brown, soupy goo.
"Wait a second, let's ask Ted," she said, looking over my shoulder toward a slender, graying man with a shirt and name tag that identified him as another volunteer. As he walked our way, he looked us up and down.
The woman introduced us and told Ted about our request.
"Maybe this afternoon," he said. "If you can come back, we might be able to do it then. But now is not a good time because the whole back end of the camp is flooded. It's really sloppy. All the rain has left us with a big mess. People are trying to dry out and move their stuff."
We thanked them for their time and decided to get out of the way. These folks did not need outsiders nosing around while they were trying to battle a new problem - flooding, mud and lost possessions amid stifling 90-degree heat and humidity. More misery. More grief. More headaches.
As we drove away, we sat in silence, mostly stunned by what we had witnessed. We felt like we'd just driven into a third-world country.
Sister Sharon said she planned to organize the people at work. "We'll volunteer, we'll make collections, we all have things we can donate. There must be ways we can help."
I hope the friends and relatives I was not able to visit during my short trip to Florida will forgive me. After seeing the homeless on the streets of St. Petersburg - some begging for handouts for their families - Tent City was a place I felt like I had to visit and write about.
As I made my way back home to Michigan, I couldn't shake the looks of despair from my mind. The experience gave new meaning to the word vacation. It also suddenly made all of my problems feel so very trivial.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Impressions of Florida - still great, but beaten down some by the economy.

It is hot as the blazes down here.
When I arrived late in the afternoon yesterday, it was steamy -- 92 degrees with a blanket of stifling humidity. But I almost did not mind it because the summer has been so cool and breezy in Michigan this year.
I love my sister Sharon's new condo just south of St. Petersburg. It's in a gated community on Coquina Key, a tiny little island that hangs off the foot of the mainland kind of like a big toe. Her condo is on a canal that runs out to the Gulf of Mexico.
The view in all directions is fantastic. Nice warm, gusty breezes off the water. It's raining here now, but the forecasters say that will pass and we'll have another hot one today. We plan to have a nice easy day around her condo pool, watch Michigan spank the daylights out of Notre Dame and then I may whip up a batch of Dave's Word Famous Spaghetti. We'll see.
Florida still looks the same to me. Lots of people, especially the kind who make me feel like a youngster (for that reason I love them, man).
But there are tons of signs indicating that the devastated national economy has taken a heavy toll on Florida. Things are horrible back in Michigan, where we've lost a million jobs since the downturn started, but times are tough here, too.
Plenty of dark, empty houses with weeds sprouting from the cracks in their paved driveways. For Sale and foreclosure declarations are posted almost everywhere you turn -- even here in my sister's gated community.
One thing I noticed while we were driving yesterday is that there are so many homeless people. You see tired, worn-looking people swarming the parks and empty lots.
At one stoplight, I watched a young woman with a sign that asked for handouts. It said she was trying to keep a roof over her family's head. Heart-wrenching. I didn't the sense that she liked what she was doing or enjoyed panhandling. I saw desperation in her eyes.
Sister Sharon says that the homeless problem has gotten so bad in the St. Pete area that every so often the cops round 'em up like cattle and drive them out of the city to an open area where tents have been set up for shelter.
But that only works for awhile. Before long, the homeless find their way back into town.
Who can blame them? That's where the action is. That's where the lifelines are. That's where the people are. And it may be the only place where they find hope.
Before I leave, I'm hoping we can visit Tent City. That's a side of Florida I've never seen before, and I'm sure it's unlike anything we'd find at Disney World ....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Laura Bush, Newt Gingrich could be GOP Dream Ticket

Right now, the only two Republicans who are displaying any kind of party leadership are Laura Bush, W.'s First Lady, and Newt Gingrich of 1990's Conservative fame.
The duo make a Dream Ticket to oppose Obama in the next presidential election. Does that sound crazy?
Think about it.
Who among the Republicans is more respected? Who among the Republicans has a better record (except, of course, for Newt's decision years ago to ditch his wife after she came down with breast cancer - but nobody is perfect, right?). Who among the Republicans is making more sense these days?
Not many - especially after the Republican from South Carolina boldly and stupidly called the president a liar during his address to Congress last night. The guy obviously slinks around lower than a snake's belly. I'd mention his name, but I feel like I want to shower every time I repeat it.
My Dream Ticket is above that.
It was Laura and Newt, you'll recall, who came out on Monday and said President Obama's back-to-school chat for the nation's kids was a good thing. What else could any right-minded individuals say?
Barack preached good old American values - stay in school, work hard and do yourself and your country proud because the U.S.A. needs you. Normally, that's the kind of stuff that makes Conservatives and Republicans drool and hug their wallets.
Newt went so far as to say that he would recommend that it would be good, important reading for every kid in the country. And Laura went a step further. She said the president of the United States deserves respect, something that came up in short supply during her husband's final years in office.
Civility and respect are things our leaders should all practice - especially in these very trying and critical times. Leadership in Congress is in very short supply.
That's why I like Laura and Newt at the top of the GOP ticket in the next election. I think Newt would make a great vice president.