Officer who lived on streets as teen helps homeless

By Laura C. Morel, Tampa Bay Times
Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times

Clearwater police Officers Justin Howard, left, and Eric Mitchell talk with Richard Doot of Hearts on Fire Ministry as the agency provides food for the needy. Behind them is Robert Coon, who is homeless.

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) - Officer Eric Mitchell watched as the homeless gathered in a grassy lot on Pierce Street.

On a recent Tuesday, dozens of men and women, some on bikes and others in wheelchairs or on crutches, formed a line and waited to receive plates of rice, beans and pasta salad from organizers with the Hearts on Fire Ministry.

Mitchell was there as part of the Clearwater Police Department's bike team, which primarily focuses on homeless outreach. As a teenager, he used to stand in lines like this at food pantries and lived in a car for a year, but eventually got off the streets and hopes he can help others to do the same in his new role on the team.

"It's not just white noise. It's not just, 'Hey, this is a great program and this can help you,'" said Mitchell, 36. "This is how it helped me. This is where my family could have been, where they were, and where we are now."

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When Mitchell was 5, his family moved from the Bronx, N.Y., to Clearwater. They never settled down, moving more than 30 times -- trailer parks, motels, friends' homes -- within one year. They moved so much Mitchell stopped going to school by the time he was a third-grader.

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times

Clearwater police Officers Justin Howard, left, and Eric Mitchell talk with Richard Doot of Hearts on Fire Ministry as the agency provides food for the needy. Behind them is Robert Coon, who is homeless.

His mother, Marge Mitchell, often worked as a secretary or telemarketer, but couldn't keep a steady job because she sometimes stole from employers or wrote bad checks to make ends meet, her son recalls.

The family's turbulent lifestyle continued for years. In 1995, Marge lost her job again and they were evicted from an apartment. Mother and 15-year-old son moved their belongings into a 1981 four-door Chevy.

"We had no more places to go," he said.

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Mitchell didn't tell anyone he was homeless. He didn't tell other teens that he lived in a Chevy on the verge of being repossessed, that he and his mother mostly ate bread and uncooked ramen noodles from food pantries, that the water they drank came from a jug they refilled from 24-hour gas station restrooms.

When his mother slept at night, Mitchell stayed awake.

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times

Clearwater police Officer Eric Mitchell patrols the East Gateway area of Clearwater on Wednesday?.

"I was just afraid. I was old enough to recognize that there were threats," he said. "I wanted to protect my mom."

During the day, he had nowhere to go, except for the martial arts school that he credits for changing his life.

Right before his family was evicted, Mitchell was walking in a shopping plaza off U.S. 19 west of Cliff Stephens Park when he noticed the Chondo Tae Kwon Do school.

"I kind of peeked inside. I couldn't really see much," he recalls. "And as I began to walk away, the owner stepped out and asked if he could help me."

Rob Word invited Mitchell to come back later when his class got started. Mitchell walked to the back of the plaza and waited hours until the school opened. He loved it. Word invited him to take a few free lessons before signing up full-time.

"At the end of the week, I could tell he was upset," Word said. "He said he couldn't continue taking tae kwon do."

The issue was money, so Word offered him a work study scholarship: Mitchell would work as his assistant and in return receive training.

"I would go in there every day. I didn't have anything else to do," Mitchell said. "I'd spend the whole day training and I'd spend time with him. And he really invested a lot of time in me."

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The turning point for the family came in November 1995 when they went to the Homeless Emergency Project, which offers food, clothing, shelter and job placement resources in Clearwater.

Marge got a telemarketing job and they lived at a shelter. Mitchell was teaching tae kwon do lessons. They eventually moved into a room at the Knights Inn on U.S. 19 and got a discount in rent for helping with the motel's laundry.

Years later in 2002, Mitchell married Krissy McVay, who also trained at Word's school. Together, they opened a martial arts academy in Tampa.

"It was a very exciting time. We were making so much money. Doing so well," his wife said, but added "it wasn't good for our family."

They worked long hours and spent time away from their sons. The Mitchells left the business in 2004. Krissy pursued a nursing career. For Mitchell, it was harder to find another job. After spending so many years away from school, he had trouble reading and writing.

As teenagers, Krissy remembers finding children's books and dictionaries in Mitchell's room. He used them to teach himself words, though he never got his GED.

But Mitchell said he was determined to get it so he could join a police academy. He took remedial classes at St. Petersburg College, took the GED test, and passed. In 2006, he graduated from the police academy and started working at the Tarpon Springs Police Department the following year.

"It was just a very surreal experience," Mitchell said. "There was a lot of hopelessness, and so for this to actually happen was amazing."

He worked there until 2012 when Clearwater police offered him a job. But when he learned about the bike team and its mission to reach the homeless, Mitchell wanted to join.

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times

Mitchell questions Jonathan Russell, who has been living under an empty office tower in Clearwater.

The team consists of eight officers and a sergeant assigned to patrol the city's parks and Pinellas Trail, as well as contribute to the city's homeless initiative, founded in 2012.

"People steal their things. They get taken advantage of. The whole homeless community is just like any other neighborhood. They know each other," said bike team Sgt. Rodney Johnson. "They don't really have any security. They're kind of vulnerable."

The team enforces city ordinances, such as not allowing people to sit or sleep on sidewalks. They also remind the homeless of the resources available to them. Within the past year, about 175 transients have taken advantage of programs promoted by the team.

Mitchell began his new role in February.

"He can say that he's walked in their shoes. He knows what they've gone through," Johnson said. "He knows the struggles."

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