By Andrew Meacham and Saundra Amrhein, St. Petersburg Times
SEFFNER — Eight months ago, Richard Shuster moved into what he calls his “gated community” — so named for the sagging gate between thickets leading to his camp site near Interstate 75.
Before he lost his job as a welder, Shuster, 59, had a car and a rented room. Now he joins others like him, whose tents can be found in the woods in eastern Hillsborough County.
The numbers are hard to pin down, but the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County thinks the number of homeless has been climbing in recent years.
And they are pushing ever deeper into the eastern suburbs, officials say.
Not long ago, the area was Hillsborough’s boomtown, the epicenter of the housing bender.
Then the housing market collapsed, restaurants closed, and skilled workers found themselves scrounging for a piece of a shrinking day labor pool. The homes they rented or owned fell into foreclosure. Their landlords, once forgiving over a late rent check, now resort to eviction.
The result: single men and women living in tent cities in the woods, families sleeping in cars, and students sleeping on friends’ couches. To many in suburbia, they are invisible.
“The people I work with are typically a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ population,” said Karen Mynes, a guidance counselor at Seffner’s McDonald Elementary School, which lists 10 children as homeless.
For these people, the usual safeguards are gone, she said.
“It’s all these tiny little things where people have been cutting them some slack,” Mynes said. “Nobody has it to give anymore.”
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An American flag flies from a tree near Shuster’s lakefront camp. He cooks on a self-made brick fireplace and washes his clothes with dish detergent and a toilet plunger. His child support payments, which mounted over five years while he was in prison on a drug conviction, caught up with him in 2007. The government began taking half of the $48 he earned at day labor.
“I’d rather have a place to live,” he said, “but this is fine. I’m not living house to house to house, looking at a wall two feet away.”
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Hillsborough sheriff’s Cpl. Don Balaban partly blames the rise in east Hillsborough’s homeless population on the new soup kitchen in Seffner.
“What hurts the most is if you provide a soup kitchen and don’t provide a place to sleep,” he said.
Six months ago, deputies started a homeless outreach program in response to business complaints about burglaries by the homeless. Most just wanted a place to sleep, Balaban said.
On their monthly roundups, deputies search the woods and under bridges. Trespassers get a warning or are arrested if there’s a warrant. More often, though, the deputies give them lists of services and shelters.
Connie Farrington rejects the idea that a soup kitchen attracts homeless camps. She is a board member of the I Am Hope Cafe, the feeding site that opened in September in Seffner.
“The reason we opened the cafe was because we had so many homeless people already here from the rest of the county, with more coming in,” she said. “We knew we’d be full before we opened it up.”
During a recent sweep by deputies, several homeless men said they’ve been out of work for months. Day labor jobs they relied on have dried up. Even if there were jobs, they said, there is more competition from homeless men coming from Tampa.
Construction work in the once-booming neighborhoods of east Hillsborough has been declining for some time. Permits for single family homes in unincorporated Hillsborough are about half of what they were a year ago,
“Ain’t nobody doing that no more,” Mickey Naylor, 50, said of the day labor construction jobs. He now lives with friends after getting robbed in the woods.
On a recent outreach patrol, Deputy Rob Thornton and others stopped at the former Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant, now an empty building in a strip mall with Lowe’s and Linens-N-Things on Causeway Boulevard in Brandon. Inside they found signs of a homeless outpost — blankets, luggage, soiled jackets, beer bottles and Taco Bell wrappers where booths and tables once stood. Outside they stopped two men. We weren’t sleeping there, the men said, insisting they were staying “at large.”
Eric Silva, operations manager at Linens-N-Things, said he hasn’t seen anyone breaking into the former Johnny Carino’s. But for most of the past year, he has noticed an increase in homeless people behind the store.
“The trash will be full, and the next day I’ll come out and it will be empty,” he said. As his store prepares to go out of business, Silva said, he empathizes with the homeless.
More than a dozen people populate the woods behind Advanced Auto Parts in Seffner.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s only an issue when there’s an impact on our customers, and in that case we call the police,” said company spokeswoman Shelly Whitaker.
Lesa Weikel, community relations manager at the Homeless Coalition, said her agency has been getting more calls from newly homeless or those about to become homeless. Most are from people who have lost jobs and can’t find work, she said.
The Homeless Coalition’s last census, in January 2007, found 9,500 homeless people — a figure the agency believes was low due to bad weather. The agency believes the number today is even higher than their 2005 estimate of 11,000.
The county is woefully short on shelter beds — only 1,500, Weikel said. She thinks the answer is more one-stop centers offering soup kitchens, job information and shelters. “No one group is going to be able to solve the problem,” Weikel said.
Meanwhile, families like that of Ed Roberts, 38, walk a frightening economic tightrope. A year ago, he worked as a cook. His wife, Deborah Fennell, was about to be promoted to manager at a Wendy’s restaurant.
Then Roberts got laid off. And a background check for Fennell turned up a 2001 bad-check charge and she was fired. The couple couch surfed with friends while their teenager lived with Roberts’ sister. Roberts recently found work as a handyman, and the family is back under one roof.
Summer Roberts, 15, said the uncertainty made her more compassionate. “A lot of my friends say they have it bad because their parents won’t let them go out,” she said. “I say, ‘Well, at least you have a place to live.’ ”
Her father won’t forget the two nights a few months ago when their luck ran out. Roberts and Fennell slept on sofa cushions in the woods wrapped in a plastic advertising banner.
“That was all it took for me to snap up and say, ‘I can’t live like that,’ ” he said.