St. Petersburg, Fla. — A mother and her three children, one a baby in arms, one a toddler, one in kindergarten, walked more than two miles in the hot sun, looking for shelter. They had been evicted from their temporary home with a friend. The mother had only a few dollars for food.
A father and his three school-age children wondered where they would spend the night. There had been a mix-up on his disability check, and no one would rent a room on the promise of a check ''coming soon.''
A mother, father, and their five children lived in their car for 10 days while the parents looked for work. They washed in gas station restrooms. Then their gas money and food money ran out.
In each of these true-life circumstances, what all the parents feared most was being separated from their children. They knew it could happen -- that there might be shelters for a child here, a child there, an adult somewhere, but not a shelter that could accommodate an entire family for the time it might take to get jobs, get a little money together, get their own roofs over their heads again.
A sense of alarm was growing in St. Petersburg as more and more of these homeless families camped on the doorsteps of the city. These were proud, independent people used to working to support their families. Now, because of unexpected circumstances, they became wanderers with their children in tow, needing helping hands but not wanting handouts.
A few years ago a group of church officials and agencies, concerned about the problem, formed a task force to search for a solution. They were joined by representatives of the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the Juvenile Welfare Board, and the Salvation Army.
The task force sought funds to establish a family emergency shelter. When none were forthcoming from the local, state, or federal government, they decided to act on their own. Through a public fund-raising event last fall and with monthly pledge checks from 15 local churches, they accumulated $12,000 - barely enough to tide them over a few months but at least enough to get started.
In mid-January the St. Petersburg Area Emergency Shelter Inc. opened its doors in a renovated two-story downtown hotel. The modest, stucco building was freshly painted inside and out. Children's toys were heaped in the small lobby among worn, upholstered furniture. The lobby floor of white asphalt tile was shiny clean. The building was obviously a place where children were welcome and could play.
Among the first families referred to the shelter were Lewis and Phyllis Cauley, who had left Oklahoma City when Mr. Cauley lost his job as a cook and couldn't find another. Florida was his home state. Things would be better there, they thought, for themselves and their children, Aubrey, 2, Melissa, 1, and the baby they were expecting soon.
But along the way, they had car trouble and incurred unexpected expenses. They arrived without money for food or baby diapers and no place to stay.
''This shelter was a godsend,'' Mrs. Cauley said a few days later, as she played with Melissa while Aubrey took his afternoon nap and Mr. Cauley was job hunting. ''We just didn't know where to turn,'' she continued. ''Everyone here has been so good to us.''
Arrangements were already under way, she said, for the delivery of her baby when the time came.
''This shelter is something that needed to be done a long time ago,'' explains Allan Shelby, the manager and cook. ''What do you do with little kids when things go wrong? You have to have compassion and patience. It makes you feel good when you help people over the bad times and you know they're getting a paycheck and taking care of themselves again.''
Later that afternoon Cauley arrived with good news. After tracking down newspaper help-wanted ads for several days, he had found a job as a cook.
''It only pays $4 an hour at first,'' he said, ''then $6 when I prove myself. That won't take long.''
He smiled. People came up to congratulate him.
''We'll make it now,'' he told his wife. ''We'll make it.''
The Cauleys met the qualifications for admission to the shelter because they had dependent children and because Cauley was able and eager to work. The next stipulation was that he find a job within the first seven days of their stay, which is always a trial period.
The maximum stay for a family is 45 days, during which time they receive shelter, three meals a day, referrals to any social services available to them, and free bus cards and tokens for job hunting.
Shelter rules are geared to the presence of children. There is an 8 p.m. curfew. No smoking or drinking is allowed. No visitors or pets are permitted on the premises. Each family is responsible for the daily cleaning of its quarters. Local families get first consideration. Families from out of town must prove their willingness to find work. All agree to share facilities with others regardless of religion or race.
After getting a job, families agree to make a contribution on a sliding scale toward the $10 for each adult and $5 for each child it costs the shelter for their care each day.
''What we're saying is, we want to keep families together -- that's our ideal ,'' says Carol Price, who volunteers her time to head the project and has been one of its driving forces from the beginning. ''Our city had missions for individuals and shelters for those with special needs such as runaways, but nothing for the family trying to get on its feet and be productive again.''
In its first two weeks, the shelter housed 30 people, when it had budgeted to house only 10. Four parents found jobs (cook, maid, dishwasher, landscaper) and two mothers applied for aid.
''If we don't get more financial support, we'll run out of money soon,'' Ms. Price says. ''We need monthly donations from 110 churches and we only have 15 now. But I'm sure when they become aware of our need, they'll come forth.''
The shelter has also made a plea for baby cribs and children's and infant's clothing and furnishings.
To Ms. Price and the dozen volunteers who serve on the shelter board, the self-help nature of the project is all-important.
''I'm not a believer in giveaway programs,'' Ms. Price says. ''You know, give a man a fish and he eats a good meal. But teach him how to fish, and he will always eat.''
Welfare, she says, ''gives this and gives that and soon you create a cycle of welfare. It's dangerous to make people dependent on giveaways like that. What we offer is temporary help -- a place to stay that's safe and clean and three good meals a day. The rest is up to them.
''We only help until they can help themselves. They can walk away with their heads held high.''
Carol Price was a first-grade teacher whose social conscience and tender heart for children led her to establish a volunteer program to cut truancy and shoplifting. She now works full time for the Juvenile Services Program's Circle of Concern in St. Petersburg.
''I have lots of dreams for the future of the shelter,'' Ms. Price says. ''I'd like to see us care for 50 people at a time and have a revolving closet where people can get pots and pans and things they need to set up housekeeping again. I'd like to see us standardize aid so people would know where to go for what services. It's a hodgepodge now, and you have to be part of the system to know where to get help.''
Meanwhile, she is excited at the prospect of solving at least one problem without government aid.
''This is a private venture, privately funded,'' she says. ''It's just people helping other people, but that's the way it should be.''