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Community concern; Family emergency shelter offers help, not handouts

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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.

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