Once homeless, neighbors in St. Petersburg housing experiment find their way

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Two months in

ST. PETERSBURG — The community room smelled like cabbage. At the long kitchen counter, a counselor was stirring pieces in an electric fry pan while six residents of the housing experiment sat on stools, watching.

Some had come to the cooking class to learn how to make a healthy, low-cost meal. Others were there to connect with neighbors. A few just wanted free hot food.

“OK, this is a one-pot recipe, a meal on a budget,” said Christy Smith, who was teaching that week. “We’re going to start with half a cabbage here and add …”

“How much did you pay for that cabbage?” interrupted a woman with a ponytail.

“That cabbage was free from the food pantry,” Christy smiled. “We have a van going there Thursday if you need a ride.”

She chopped potatoes, added red onions and Adobo seasoning.

“Mmm! That smells really, really good,” said a man in a Bucs T-shirt. “How much did that frying pan cost?”

“It was $19.99 at Walmart,” Christy said. “If you want to go, we have a van to take you there Friday.”

She was slicing sausage when two women walked in, a mother and her grown daughter.

“Hey, it’s Virginia and Amanda!” said a man in a white cap. “Here! Come sit here! Take my chair.”

Each week, counselor Christy Smith teaches a cooking class in the community room of the new apartments. Here, she talks with Walter Sloan, 54, who used to work in restaurants – and hopes to again. Other residents came to sample the sausage and cabbage. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

***

Many of the residents had been neighbors before at shelters, sleeping in a sea of donated tents. Most had never had their own place. Some had spent years on the streets.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, they moved into 25 brand new apartments in downtown St. Petersburg, fully furnished, with new appliances, dishes and pillows that said, “LOVE.”

The Innovare apartments in downtown St. Petersburg include 50 units. Half are for formerly homeless people, who pay rent as low as $100 a month. The rest are for low-income residents. The $18 million housing experiment was paid for with government and charitable funds. Local leaders hope it could become a model for other cities. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

That Monday, at the cooking class, the residents had been in their homes for two months. They had unpacked their garbage bags of belongings, hung posters and curtains. Some had learned to navigate the city’s bus system, sign up for food stamps, use an app to pay for their laundry. Others had gotten help finding doctors, making resumes and applying for jobs. A couple kids had enrolled in new schools.

“They’re already looking healthier, happier,” said Janet Stringfellow, CEO of Florida’s Volunteers of America. “They’re more engaged with each other and in their community.”

Their apartments are in two six-story towers called Innovare. Built with government and charitable funds, they’re near Bayfront Hospital and a short walk from a bus stop. Many of the residents have mental health issues or are in recovery. Counselors, caseworkers and 12-step meetings are on site. Two staff members live in the building.

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Vouchers cover some residents’ rent. Others pay a portion of their income from disability, Social Security or minimum wage jobs — as little as $100 a month.

Another 25 units are rented to low-income residents who make less than $37,000 annually.

“We’re trying something new here,” said Janet, whose organization led the $18 million project. “We’re offering people everything they need to be independent — and a place to call home.”

Donna Watson worries about her neighbors and often shares hot meals. Since moving into her new apartment, she has made pot roast, chicken and spaghetti sauce from scratch. She gets $200 a month in food stamps, so she won’t go to the food pantry. “I wouldn’t want to take away from folks who really need it,” she said. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

At the end of April, more than 100 elected officials, business leaders and heads of charities were invited to a ribbon cutting and a tour. If this project succeeds, local leaders said, it could make a much needed dent in the area’s affordable housing crisis — and become a model for other cities.

With housing costs soaring across the country, the number of homeless people in the U.S. rose 12% last year — to more than 650,000.

The Supreme Court is debating whether people should be arrested for sleeping outside. Florida is considering setting up more tent cities. And in Pinellas County, more than 2,000 people don’t have homes.

The St. Petersburg project is the first of its kind, an attempt to give people a safe place to live and support services to start over.

“We’re going to prove to the world that this is possible,” Janet said.

The Tampa Bay Times was there when the first residents moved in. We will continue to follow their journeys throughout the year.

***

“Come on and eat! See, that only took 30 minutes,” Christy said, turning off the pan. “And look how many people it feeds from just half a cabbage!”

Throughout the class, residents kept filing into the kitchen. Now a dozen lined up around the counter.

“I cut yours up, so you can eat it with your dental issues,” Christy said to the woman with the ponytail.

“And you can pick out the sausage,” she told Virginia and Amanda. “I know you’re vegan.”

Virginia Moral, 72, was painfully thin, with sunken cheeks and shadows under her eyes. For the last year, while she and her daughter were homeless, she had been “mostly fasting.” What little food she could afford, she gave to Amanda, 36.

For almost a year, Virginia “fasted” so her daughter could have enough food. She worries about Amanda, who suffers from epileptic seizures, and seldom lets her out of her sight. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They had a house three years ago in South Carolina. Virginia worked from home coding medical bills, so she could keep an eye on Amanda, who suffers from epileptic seizures.

“When she was three months old, her father shook her so badly her brain bled,” Virginia said. “I got her all kinds of treatments, but the seizures didn’t stop, sometimes 100 a day.”

In 2021, Amanda told her mom that God wanted her to go to The River Bible Institute in Tampa. So that summer, they packed everything into a trailer and towed it to Florida.

They couldn’t find an apartment they could afford, so they rented a room from a woman at their new church for $1,200 a month — more than rent for their whole house in South Carolina.

But the woman’s house sold and they had to move. Then Virginia lost her job. And Amanda had a violent seizure at school, so had to stop going.

Amanda is always searching for signs: “If you look for it,” she said, “Love is everywhere.” She sees hearts in piles of trash, on sidewalk stains. She takes photos of heart-shaped potato chips, hair bands and tissues. For Valentine’s Day, she made her mom two hearts to decorate her new dresser.
[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Virginia found a specialist in Tampa who promised to cure Amanda with brain training exercises. He didn’t accept Medicaid and wanted $1,000 a month to treat her. So Virginia paid him half of her savings — $5,000.

Soon, the rest was gone. Amanda’s seizures slowed but didn’t stop. And in early 2023, they started sleeping in their car, bouncing between motel parking lots. On Saturdays, they would splurge and get a room, take a shower.

They started stretching her $955 a month from Social Security, spending their days in the library trying to keep cool, their nights sweating in the car. “God, please, do you not see we’re suffering?” Virginia kept praying. “Please, God, we can’t do this any more.”

In August, a man gave Amanda a pamphlet about Pinellas Hope, a 20-acre tent city in Clearwater. Virginia had been scared of shelters. But the brochure, she decided, was a sign.

For the next six months, mother and daughter shared Tent #108, walking a half-mile to use the toilet. The sun woke them at daybreak, streaming through the nylon walls. At night, the dark was so thick they slept with a flashlight turned on between them. They bought a lock for the zippered door.

By Thanksgiving, they were so cold they pulled on two pairs of pajamas, plus sweatshirts and piled six donated blankets on top of them. But they couldn’t stop shaking. “I’d try to hold it together until she fell asleep,” Virginia said. “I didn’t want her to see me cry.”

A counselor came to them just before Christmas. Of the more than 200 people staying at the shelter, Virginia and Amanda had been chosen to get their own apartment. Like the other new tenants, they were picked because managers at Pinellas Hope thought, with a little support, they could live on their own.

At the shelter, Amanda and Virginia shared Tent #108 for six months. They had to stand in line to shower or use the single microwave that served 200 people. Long-time vegans, the mother and daughter couldn’t eat much of the free food Pinellas Hope provided. They were excited to find vegan pizza at the food pantry. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Their third-floor unit overlooks the highway. “God blessed us with a view,” Amanda said. Virginia couldn’t believe they have granite countertops. A dishwasher. Free internet. And air conditioning! All for $198 a month.

“Since we’ve had a kitchen here, and rides to the food pantry, we cook every night,” Virginia told Christy. “I think I’m even starting to gain weight.”

They were heading out of the community room when Amanda stopped and gasped. “Look!” she cried, pointing. “Computers! Now we don’t have to go to the library. And I can go back to school and take classes online and get my AA and …” She threw her arms around her mom. “It’s such a relief. Now I can do everything.”

***

A dozen people came to the first residents’ meeting in April. It wasn’t mandatory. But property manager Jason “Fozzie” Nelson, 47, had hoped for more.

He brought sodas and popcorn, planned games for the kids. He was trying to build a community.

He had worked in nonprofits for years, mostly office jobs, never “in the trenches.” But he loved watching these residents get to know each other.

“There’s a lot of trauma bonding going on here,” he said.

He didn’t want to fuss at people or call the cops. But he was supposed to protect the buildings — and residents.

Jason “Fozzie” Nelson, 47, is property manager of the new project. He hasn’t worked with homeless people before, but loves watching them settle into their new lives and supporting each other. “We’re all one illness, one job, one raised rent or bad relationship away from being homeless,” he said. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Already, someone had brought a gun into their apartment, which is against federal housing rules.

Someone else had propped open the outside doors, which are supposed to be locked at night.

A man was sleeping in the elevator.

People had been smoking weed in the parking lot.

And a tenant had torn out his smoke detector because he thought it was a camera.

Police had responded to three calls at the buildings: missing property, a dispute and the “suspicious person” in the elevator. But no one had been arrested.

“Thank you for coming,” Fozzie said, twirling his mustache. “We have snacks and prizes.”

Virginia and Amanda were there, along with Walter Sloan, 54, their friend from the shelter. A former cook, he was showing them photos of the shrimp alfredo he made. Donna Watson, 64, had come too. She had just made spaghetti for her neighbor Nicole, who doesn’t cook or like meetings.

“So, people are still smoking in the buildings. That’s the quickest way to ruin a new building, and you can’t smoke in federal housing,” Fozzie said. He didn’t tell them workers had been pulling air filters, that cigarette smoke already was leaving evidence. “You’ll lose your apartment!” Fozzie said. “I’m not playing.”

We’re still working on setting up a smoking area outside, he said. Something better than a bucket of sand. Maybe chairs or a gazebo. “And please put your trash down the chute or in the dumpster,” Fozzie said. “Someone on the third floor threw dirty diapers on the floor there and I had to clean them up. I’m done!”

***

Two weeks later, the parking lot between the buildings was filled with folding chairs. Workers had set up a white canopy, bought balloons and printed programs for the ribbon-cutting.

Dignitaries were due in an hour and Donna was bent over in the flower bed, picking up cigarette butts. Someone had given her a new sundress that she didn’t want to get dirty. But she couldn’t just leave litter lying around.

“God blessed us with this gift. I can’t believe people take it for granted,” she told Janet, who was setting up tables. “I’m going to help prove people wrong about us, show them we’ll make it.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, front left, applauds during the grand opening ceremony at Innovare Apartments in late April. Resident Donna Watson, far right, also was in the front row for the celebration. While more than 100 elected officials and dignitaries sat under a white tent, a dozen of the new tenants stood in back, by the building. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Donna had been an emergency room nurse before the pandemic, before a drunken driver hit her — destroying her car, breaking her neck, making it impossible to work. When she ran out of rent money, she moved into a motel, then landed at Pinellas Hope last fall. “I can’t believe I have a bed!” she told Janet. “My back doesn’t hurt as bad, and I’m finally able to rest.”

She filled her apartment with lighthouses and dolphins, thrift store decor that reminded her of her deceased husband, who had been a commercial fisherman.

“Did I tell you they picked me?” Donna asked Janet, beaming. “I get to give tours today and show off my new home!”

Pinellas Hope’s manager Joe Pondolfino had come to celebrate and see the former shelter residents. He couldn’t believe how much healthier Donna looked, how Virginia’s face was filling out, how happy Walter seemed. “I’m so glad you made it here,” Joe said, hugging them. “Just look at you all!”

Walter was wearing a new cap and shirt. He had pressed his white pants into perfect creases. Counselors had asked him to share his story at the ceremony, so he had been rehearsing. He stood by the building with a dozen other residents, away from the crowd.

“You did it!” cried Mike King, national president of the Volunteers of America. “All of you together did this. This is what affordable housing should be. …

“We’re working on 100 units near the Washington, D.C., baseball stadium right now,” he said. “Thank you to all the elected officials here today. This is truly a model for our country.”

Walter Sloan had gotten a new shirt and pressed his white pants for the ceremony. “The first couple of weeks I was here, I just couldn’t stop laughing,” he said. “I still can’t believe this place is mine.” He already had made a resume, applied for jobs as a cook. “I’m just getting started,” he said. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Innovare apartment residents, city and county leaders, and Volunteers of America officials celebrate at the grand opening of the new St. Petersburg housing experiment. From left is City Council member Copley Gerdes, resident Walter Sloan, CEO of Volunteers of America of Florida Janet Stringfellow, US Rep. Kathy Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, County Commissioner Rene Flowers, resident Donna Watson, and Volunteers of America national president Mike King. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When it was time for Walter to tell his story, he spoke confidently. He had come to Florida 19 months ago to be near his mother “after a tragic accident.” He had been working in a warehouse, building pallets, when he shot himself in the knee with a nail gun. After a slew of surgeries, he lost his job, his mobility, his marriage and his apartment.

When all that happened, he had just gotten sober after being addicted to cocaine for 30 years. He didn’t talk about that. Or that he had been a cook, and wants to be one again. He didn’t tell them that he sells his plasma twice a week.

“It got to be too much,” he said. “I needed my life back.” At Pinellas Hope, he served coffee, played jazz through his phone speaker, tried to turn the covered patio into a cafe. He was the first person picked to move into the new apartments. He already had made a resume, uploaded it, gotten interviews at Evos and Chilis.

“I’m so happy. I can’t tell you. Thank you all and thank God,” he said. “You’re changing lives here.”

After dignitaries cut the red ribbon, Donna picked up two pieces. “A souvenir,” she said, handing one to Walter, “of our new beginning.”

After the ribbon cutting, Donna Watson picked up a piece to save – and another to share with her friend. She and Walter Sloan had been at the shelter together and now are neighbors in their new apartments. The slice of ribbon, she told him, is a souvenir from their new start. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Then she led a group to her apartment. She couldn’t wait for them to see it, and all of her greenery.

At Publix, she had convinced the manager to sell her the sickest plants for half-price, the ones no one thought would make it.

She had carried the ivy and peace lily home, set them in her shower, watered them and sang them country songs.

Now, with a little love, they were starting to grow.

***

As residents settle into routines, rent is coming due.

Catholic Charities covered most people’s first month. But in May, tenants have to pay their own minimal amounts. Some will struggle.

Others are worried about coming up with power bill payments.

Staff are trying to figure out how to help — and when to be stern.

What penalties should people pay for breaking rules? Or not paying rent?

How many strikes should they get before they are out?

No one wants to send people back to the streets.

But if this experiment is going to work, there will have to be grace — and consequences.

Related: Read part one of The Housing Experiment: In St. Petersburg, homeless people get an apartment, support – and a fresh start