Where are we going, and how will we get there? As a community, we’re constantly seeking the optimal balance between the needs we have and the needs we serve. And through discussion, we arrive at solutions. The At the Table series is for sharing our intentions, ideas and experience to help us align and work better – together.
Part five in a series
A Saturday morning walk along Mirror Lake Drive in downtown St. Petersburg provides proof that average residents can significantly impact the lives of the city’s homeless population.
Paula Martel knows several members of the sizable contingent milling along Mirror Lake’s south shore by name. For her, they are not “homeless people.” They are unsheltered residents with names and individual needs.
Smiley needed jeans. Tara needed shoes. Cristos needed black T-shirts for a new job, and Michael needed a new backpack. Martel, 70, realizes the power of creating one-on-one relationships and looking into the eyes of people who often feel invisible.
“The consistency of being here every week at 9:30 (a.m.) is what’s really important,” said Martel. “I find myself a conduit between people who want to help and those needing help.”
Martel knows what it is like to feel invisible. Several decades ago, she found herself in a Santa Cruz, California, detox center with just the clothes on her back. Officials told Martel to dig through a box for anything that might fit.
She became a homeless advocate and realized most unsheltered residents must repeatedly endure the same process. They stand in long lines to receive whatever is available, and thoughtful conversation is typically nonexistent.
Martel decided to break the mold while volunteering with the St. Pete Free Clinic’s walk-up food pantry during the pandemic. She began creating relationships with the people they served and saw a positive impact from building camaraderie and earning their trust.
She took her service model to Mirror Lake Drive after noticing a table along the sidewalk with an array of food. A couple of members of the local Food Not Bombs affiliate pitch in to provide home-cooked breakfast to the homeless every Saturday morning.
A volunteer that goes by “Jay” noted that many homeless people prefer to stay away from large nonprofit facilities. So, he and his small group buy, cook and bring hot food and conversation to a familiar location.
Natashia Milburn also noted that the people they serve commend them for their consistency and attention.
Martel and two friends began setting up tables with clothing, hygiene products and other requested necessities. She ensures everything is folded neatly and separated according to gender.
Between handing out items, she offers encouragement and advice and celebrates successes. She said helping to mitigate the problem fills her soul, as she remembers feeling looked down upon and shunned.
“And one of the things that Mike just said is ‘they lump us all together,’” added Martel. “That we’re all just drug addicts and alcoholics, and that we just want to be out here.’”
Martel noted that Mike had a job and an apartment until he lost both as a direct result of the pandemic. Like many people who live on the street, she said he believes there is nothing that will pay him enough to afford a new place – as rents have increased exponentially.
A younger homeless man, Jesse, said making $40 for day labor is not enough to survive. Before living on the street, he assumed those people did not want to work. Now he wishes someone “would give them an actual shot.”
He said many homeless people appear grumpy and unapproachable because they believe no one sincerely cares. Martel frequently mentioned the “us and them” mentality, which is one reason she had to plead with a lady to go to nearby St. Vincent de Paul CARES and “let them help you.”
However, she also said nonprofits like St. Vincent’s are overwhelmed, and many unsheltered residents complain about a lack of cleanliness in those facilities. Jack, like many homeless people, said that a clean place to take showers and do laundry – both critical to applying for jobs – would make a significant difference.
Another couple provides hot coffee every morning to the homeless in Williams Park. They also join Martel and Food Not Bombs volunteers on Saturdays.
Jesse said the group’s reliable presence, with no government funding, “shows that people care and that I’m not a total scumbag.”
He explained that cutting grass and performing other community services for Alcoholics Anonymous helps him stay sober and build character. Martel pays one of her regulars a small amount to help her load and unload items and set up her tables.
While the money isn’t much, Martel became emotional as she said it gives him some kind of purpose.
“They don’t have anywhere to be,” she said. “Can’t we create a place for them to be?”
She relayed that many of the 40 to 50 people lining the street now call her “granny” or “mom” and often ask if they could establish an afternoon to play games. Martel wishes local organizations would set aside time for the city’s homeless to use shuffleboard courts and various facilities.
She noted some places downtown allow people to come in and earn a little money for completing menial jobs. Martel said it provides the homeless with something to do at a set time, and she believes anything that can foster relationships and a better understanding of the problem can create lasting change.
“Let’s just give some folks some options,” Martel said. “People in the community don’t realize how much help they can be to somebody by just offering a place to sweep up or break down boxes.”
Next: Nonprofit leaders talk homelessness and their thoughts on solutions.