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.