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Saving a homeless man motivates Dade City couple to do more

DADE CITY — It's cold, damp and dark as hopeful vendors set up their booths in the Joy-Lan Drive-In parking lot. At sunrise every Sunday morning, the flea market becomes a place for opportunities, a trading ground of surprise finds where old stuff gets a new life.

After unpacking tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and peppers from an old brown Econovan, Jose Guerra set up brimming bushel baskets while his wife, Juanita, carried trash to the corner of the property.

Eight years ago, as she reached into this Dumpster, she found something that would change their lives forever.

A man named Owen "Shorty" Stringer.

Shorty looked up from the filth and told Juanita: "I'm hungry and got no place to stay."

Shorty's hair was matted. His clothes and shoes were raggedy. And he smelled of mold and urine from 23 years on the streets. Juanita immediately offered to help.

She and her husband gave Shorty food and medical care, and eventually provided a trailer for him on their property.

"He was tired of living in gopher holes," said Juanita, 56. "He started fixing things and kept an eye out for us. He didn't panhandle. He paid the rent. He never borrowed a thing."

Shorty, who lived up to his nickname at 4-feet-11, landscaped for the neighbors, sometimes knocking down weeds that were taller than he was. He cared for the Guerras' pets, maintained fencing and repaired items for sale at the flea market.

Most of all, he inspired the Guerras to activism.

• • •

It's hard to track the people who don't have their own address, who may be crashing on a friend's couch, doubled-up at a relative's home or camped in the woods somewhere, searching Dumpsters for survival.

The Rev. Jim Campbell, president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County, estimates that 8,000 people in Pasco are homeless, and he says relief is woefully inadequate. Most of the resources, like his ROPE Center in Hudson, are anchored in west Pasco. County officials have ordered the only east Pasco shelter, operated by Chancey Road Christian Church in Zephyrhills, to close by next May because it lacks a permit (and couldn't secure one because of intense neighborhood opposition).

Campbell laments the lack of money and resources to establish other havens for the homeless.

"It costs $18 an hour for a 40-hour week to sustain a family of four," said Campbell, who grew up poor in Kentucky with nine brothers and sisters. "It brings me to tears. Once they fall behind, it may take two years to turn it around."

But he likes to think of the children's story Stone Soup as a recipe for solving seemingly insurmountable problems.

"Someone throws a rock into a pot of water," he said. "And someone else comes along and throws in a carrot. That's what we need — everybody to help season the soup."

• • •

The Guerras met in the migrant fields north of Tampa. Jose, then 17, arrived from Guadalajara, Mexico, after the death of his mother. Juanita grew up in Alabama and moved to Land O'Lakes at age 16 with her brother, who ran a picking crew for oranges and strawberries. She worked with and taught English to immigrant workers.

"I met Jose in the groves," she said. "We talked and talked and talked. He was looking for a good woman and I liked his personality … and I love to hear him sing."

Five years later the couple honeymooned in Mexico, and Jose obtained his green card and began his long path to citizenship. In 2010 he passed the test.

They have no children and live debt-free on their 1-acre farm midway between Dade City and Lacoochee. At this stage in their lives, profit is no longer a priority. Their vegetable stand is a place to greet loyal customers and to find new people in need.

As they helped Shorty get back on his feet, the Guerras felt compelled to reach out to help others who are homeless.

In 2005, the couple teamed up with Hazel Wells, a leader in the local black community, to collect, sort and distribute provisions for the needy. Together they opened Angel Thrift Shop at 19244 U.S. 301, using the proceeds to feed homeless people who hide in the nearby woods.

They closed the store last year when Juanita broke her arm. Now that she has recuperated, the trio has been busy cleaning and painting the store and sorting piles of donations, with plans to reopen before the end of the year.

Their efforts have taken on a new sense of purpose. Shorty died of chronic liver failure in September. He was 52. The Guerras hosted a memorial service for him at the Christian Edge Dream Center, where talk moved from Shorty's life to the need for a homeless shelter in east Pasco.

The Guerras hope to someday make something like that happen, because the need hasn't gone away.

"The Lord's going to bring me another one," Juanita said. "That's my dream. We all got a job to do."

Saving a homeless man motivates Dade City couple to do more 11/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 12, 2012 9:16am]
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