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Community concern; Family emergency shelter offers help, not handouts

By Lucille deViewSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 1982

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.

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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.