Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Visit to Pinellas Hope

The last stop on my tent city tour was Pinellas Hope, which is located just outside of St. Petersburg, Florida.  This one was very important because it is the only tent city of my trip that was actually legally accepted by the city.  I was interested in hearing how they were able to accomplish such a task and what the strengths and weaknesses of this model were.

This tent city is run through a religious organization.  I had previously sent an e-mail to the organization inquiring about a visit and was told, “During the summer if you find yourself in Pinellas County, give us a call, and speak with one of the facility managers or the director, Sheila Lopez concerning a visit.”  So I called Ms. Lopez a couple days before arriving in the area to set up a time to visit.  The call did not go as I had planned and left me disappointed.

I was told there was no way I could visit within the next few days.  The only way I could be in Pinellas Hope was if one of the facility managers was with me (Angelina Moses or Shiela Lopez), and she said they simply don’t have the time.

“I cant’ just have random people walking around this place - for all I know, you could be the devil,” Said Lopez.

I told her that I am a student doing research on tent cities, and that I am working with other tent cities searching for sanctioned land that would find the information useful.  I also added that I could show her my student I.D. and drivers license.

She proceeded to tell me, “While this might be a high priority for you, it is not a priority for us.”

I thought to myself - Huh, you would think helping a large number of people in poverty would be a priority of any religious organization.  I also wondered why such a person would question if I was the devil…

So, I showed up the next day to see what I could do. 


The tent city that was once erected in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, was now located 11 miles away in another city, Pinellas Park.  I found it at the end of a dead end street that seemed to otherwise be used for industrial uses.


The site was completely surrounded by fencing accepting for an opening near the entrance.  Signs reading “Private Property No Trespassing” were posted, ironically the same signs usually used to keep tent city residents out.


I entered and explained my situation to the volunteers at the front desk but received similar, yet more polite, responses.  I returned to the street and decided to check out what I could see along the perimeter of the site.  Around the corner I found quite a bit of construction going on and a new looking building.  I later found out that it will be used as a community center.
Returning to the entrance I decided to wait out front and see if I could talk with some of the residents going in and out, possibly finding a way in.  Finally, a volunteer asked me about what I was doing and became interested in helping.  He went back in and, after quite some time, was able to convince the facility manager to let him show me around - as long as I didn't take any pictures.


The first thing I noticed walking in was a large board that displayed the camp rules. Next to it was another board where residents were required to check in and out of the camp.


Next, I was shown the area where the tents were set up. They were numbered and arranged in a rigid manner for as far as I could see. They were all identical except for a slight color variation and a different number on each tent. I was told the number of units usually fluctuates between 200 and 250 residents, and has higher occupancy in the winter because of the warm weather.


There were also some built structures, though still no sign of individuality.

After checking out the living quarters, I was able to see some of the amenities offered at Pinellas Hope. These were each in a trailer or prefabricate structure, lined along the perimeter of the site. Some of the uses I saw included bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, a GED classroom, and a computer labs (only to be used for job searches and resumes).


 
In my opinion, Pinellas Hope simply seemed like an outdoor homeless shelter - not my idea of a tent city.  The camp appeared to be run top down by the employees rather than with a democratic system that involved involved the residents.  This resulted in the lack of a community environment.

I was left with the impression that they did not want me there because they were fearful I would say bad things about it, as if I was some sort of undercover new reporter.  This was probably due to the organization known as Stop Tent City, which has show extreme opposition to the camp.  The site is quite comical and probably deserves a post of its own.

2 comments:

  1. Hey,
    i'm also a student doing a study on tent cities and more specifically on Pinellas Hope. I understand that you may have had some difficulties in accessing this facility but understand that it is also for clients (the homeless individual) best interest in terms of confidentiality. Also, as you say Pinellas Hope is not run through a democratic system but that is because it serves a very different purpose than the other tent cities shown in your blog.
    I think your blog is inspiring and thank for giving us access to the information you have collected!

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  2. Welcome to the Tent City... Home of good intentions. The initial establishment of this facility was to accomodate displaced homeless people who were harassed by the City of St. Pete Police Dept., primarily due to their location and public mistrust of such people. However, the Police pick you up in St. Pete, drive you out to the tent city, where you will immediately undergo background checks. You are expected to adhere to a set of rules which are intended to weed otu those with criminal backgrounds, mental health issues, or to put it bluntly, anyone that is not responsible. Unfortunately, many homeless people are disadvantaged in those areas, so the majority will not qualify to become residents. By accepting and screening those residents, the organizers increase their chances of success, as the funds they recieve are directly linked to successful transition into the community. With a stacked deck like that, it is no wonder they are so secretive. I'm not against it, as there is a definite need for those services. Yet I would like to see the same servcies available to all who need it, not just a select few.

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