Published: Oct 14, 2010 3:53 AM EDT
Updated: Oct 13, 2010 11:37 PM EDT

CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. - You see the homeless on the side of the road or sitting in parks, but have you ever wondered how they got there? The Charlotte County Homeless Coalition is putting faces to the millions of struggling in the U.S., and right here in Southwest Florida.
Just a few years ago, Phillip Thierjung worked 50 hours a week. "The job market completely collapsed, so without a car, I had no place to go," he said.

Now, the 55 year old sleeps in the woods and collects cans for cash. "I just want to be able to get out of here as fast as I can," Thierjung said.
The economic downturn forced even the most successful out of their homes, yet he said the stereotypes are still there, "that they're bums, that they're all just alcoholics, and drug addicts," Thierjung said.

All myths he says he and other homeless or formerly homeless people want to erase. Through the Homeless Coalition's Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau, they're getting a chance to put people in their shoes.

"Florida has been one of the leading states in crimes against homelessness, so we are trying to go out to schools and educate children about homelessness so they aren't so inclined to commit random violent acts against the homeless," Program Coordinator Gina Tsapralis said.

Tsapralis is spending the year jump-starting the program before heading to law school.

"They've got good stories to tell and I think that when people come and listen to us, they are going to be really surprised and they're going to learn a lot," Tsapralis said.
For now, Thierjung tries to sell the novel he wrote, hoping and praying, it will be his ticket out.

"Most of the homeless people I know do not want to be homeless," he said. "We are homeless because we have to be. We have no choice in the matter."

The Speakers' Bureau has 6 speakers so far, and is looking for more women and families to share their stories. They hope have to have the ball rolling by early November.

To schedule a speaker to come to your group or event, contact Tsapralis at 941-627-4313 or

To read more about Thierjung's book, go to