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[NORTH Edition]

St. Petersburg Times - St. Petersburg, Fla.




Oct 8, 2007

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A community activist proposes transitional steps for the homeless.

Denny Mihalinec is out of breath.

The 34-year-old longtime community activist gets excited when he talks about a plan he has developed over the past two years to help Pasco County's homeless. For a month now, Mihalinec has presented his proposal to anyone who would listen.

"He's a real go-getter," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who met with Mihalinec for almost an hour in September and was impressed by his plan.

Mihalinec wants to build a transitional housing center, called Journey Village, on the east side of the county.

In his plan, homeless people would check into the village's intake center, where they would be set up with a bed and connected to existing services that offer job placement, food stamps and health care.

The goal is for Journey Village residents to save their work money and move from the intake center to small no-frills homes, no bigger than a child's playhouse, located in the village.

The homes, which are traditionally used for hunting cabins, consist of a bed, sink and toilet, and cost $2,000 to $10,000, Mihalinec says. They would have electricity and air-conditioning.

The homes could be rented for as little as $25 a month but would include some stipulations: no alcohol, no parties, and the tenant must have or be looking for a job.

The village, which would also include a shower room, playground, community center and church, would be run and patrolled by volunteers.

"In this village we're going to extend our love from here to the moon, but there has to be boundaries," Mihalinec said.

Officials estimate there are more than 1,300 homeless in Pasco County, and only 184 emergency shelter beds, most on the west side.

"We could use some balance in the county," said Eugene Williams, supervisor for the Pasco Community Development Division.

A transitional family housing center, like the one Mihalinec envisions, is planned for the New Port Richey area. It will house about 60 people if funding is secured, Williams said.

Mihalinec's plan for Journey Village includes accommodations for about 200 people at a time.

"It could have some merit," said Tom Pierce, director of the state's Office on Homelessness in Tallahassee, who has received e- mails from Mihalinec touting his plan. "There's certainly obviously a need for more of the transitional housing that Denny is talking about."

Mihalinec hopes Journey Village could be a temporary center where homeless people could live cheaply and save their money for an apartment or a home through an affordable housing program.

"This is getting people off the ground and getting them into mainstream society," he said. "It's a hand-up, not a handout."

Helping the homeless is a personal quest. Mihalinec grew up in Trilby. His mom waited tables for 16 hours a day to support her three sons, he said. But sometimes she couldn't make rent, and she and the boys had to sleep in the family's El Camino.

"I know what it's like for people to struggle, for people to say, 'Wow, what am I going to eat tomorrow?'" he said.

This isn't the first community project for Mihalinec. He helped establish the Greater Trilby Community Association, which has brought affordable housing to the community's disabled residents, and has been involved with Habitat for Humanity projects, development of the Withlacoochee Trail State Park, Crime Watch and Adopt-a-Highway efforts.

Though Mihalinec has seen other projects to fruition, Journey Village will be one of his most time-consuming and expensive.

"Funding is going to be his largest obstacle," said Joy Hampton, assistant district director for U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite. Hampton met with Mihalinec last week and listened to his plan, but says it's too early to say whether Brown-Waite would support it.

Mihalinec needs $100,000 and 5 acres donated to start up Journey Village.

Rep. Weatherford said he wants to help Mihalinec get government funding once the 5 acres are secured.

"It's hard to get state funding for someone or push for a pilot project if we don't have a place to do it," Weatherford said.

Overall, he was impressed by the Journey Village idea.

"It's different. It's thinking outside the box," Weatherford said. "I think he will get if off the ground. His heart's in it."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at (352) 521-6518 or htravis@sptimes.com.


How to help

Denny Mihalinec is seeking volunteers, sponsors and donations for his Journey Village plan. Call (813) 948-9596 or e-mail dmihalinec@gmail.com.

Credit: Times Staff Writer