ST. PETERSBURG — Under the interstate, in a square of shade, a tired-looking woman with bloodshot eyes sat fanning herself with a cardboard sign.
"Homeless with children," said the sign. "Anything will work."
Her dirty flip-flops were worn thin. Her white T-shirt was clean. She had tugged a ballcap over her short blond hair.
"I've been flying for about a year, ever since my husband died," she said. She calls panhandling "flying a sign."
"Had to do something to support my kids," she said.
She said her name is Tracy. Wouldn't give her last name. She said she's 38 and has three children, ages 8, 10 and 17. "My oldest, my girl, watches the boys while I work.
"We live pretty close by," she said. "Got a nice camp back in the woods."
Soon, a white Isuzu Rodeo braked beside her. The passenger window slid down. A wave of air-conditioning bathed Tracy's sunburned face.
"I've been looking for you. I'm so glad I found you," said the driver, a smiling woman in a yellow blouse. "The apartment is all ready."
Tracy stood up slowly. "I didn't think you'd really come," she said. "It sounded too good to be true."
A St. Petersburg Times photographer and I had set out that scorching Thursday in late June to report a story on panhandlers: how they work, how much they make, which signs are best.
We saw the car stop beside Tracy, heard the woman speak to her. When the woman opened the door and said, "Let's go get your kids and show them their new home," we asked if we could go along.
You don't often get to see a stranger give a family a home.
• • •
"The kids got me," said the woman in the yellow blouse. "I'm a mother of five. I can't imagine having to do that to feed my children, having to live outside with them."
The woman's name is Helene Fix. She's 54. She had been hurrying to a meeting a couple of days earlier when she had seen Tracy at the exit. She had handed her a couple of crumpled bills and driven off.
Then she had turned around.
"My niece was homeless for three years," said Fix. "I was almost there myself."
After splitting from her second husband, Fix later explained, she lost her job and house. She found a small efficiency in a complex that needed a manager. So she and her kids moved into the coral building a short walk from downtown.
The gated courtyard became their living room. And the people in the 22 apartments formed a patchwork family.
"So when I saw Tracy the other day, and her eyes were so red, she told me she'd been crying all afternoon," Fix said. "She told me all about her kids . . . She said her daughter has cerebral palsy. Imagine that poor girl, living in the woods, walking with crutches."
Fix had told Tracy about an empty apartment in her complex. It's on the first floor, she had said, so your daughter won't have to worry about stairs.
She had promised to help Tracy get rent vouchers and food stamps, help her move in.
"It took a lot of juggling," Fix said. "But it just feels so good knowing those kids will have a home."
• • •
Under the interstate at 22nd Avenue N, Tracy climbed into Fix's car.
Which way? Fix asked.
Aren't we going to the apartment? asked Tracy.
Sure, but let's get your kids first. Where's your camp?
Tracy hesitated. Other homeless people share their site, she said. She wasn't sure she should bring Fix there.
Fix offered to drop her nearby, let her walk and bring back her kids.
Couldn't we just go see the apartment? Tracy asked. She could go back for the kids later.
Fix puzzled over that. If she had been the homeless one, she would have wanted to show her kids right away, get them out of the woods.
Aren't they hungry? she asked Tracy. We can get them something to eat.
Tracy insisted: They're fine.
• • •
The apartment buildings are two stories, with emerald awnings. The downstairs doors open onto a patio filled with palm trees and wicker couches.
As soon as Fix unlocked the gate, people came pouring out. "Welcome!" they called, clasping Tracy's hands. "We're so glad you're here!"
Fix had told them all about the homeless mom and her three children. Everyone wanted to be part of the rescue. They approached Tracy like modest magi, offering their humble gifts.
First came Paul, from Apartment No. 1. "I'm going to make you all dinner tonight," said the big man in a patterned shirt. "And I got all kinds of craft stuff, beads and jewelry to keep your kids busy. They can take some over to your new home."
"I'm Vanessa, her niece, the one she told you about?" said a dark-haired young woman. "I got you some dishes, pots and pans and stuff to get started. Just let me know what else you need."
Brian brought a case of bottled water. Denver donated a double mattress. Someone sent a dining room chair. "And here comes my old couch," Fix said, stepping aside for two men shouldering a flowered sofa.
Tracy hadn't even seen her apartment, and her new neighbors already had it half-furnished.
• • •
"No. 7," Fix said, opening the door.
"Lucky No. 7," Tracy echoed.
Tracy scanned the space, about the size of a room at the Howard Johnson's, with a kitchen along the back wall. A wide hall wound behind it. "Should be big enough to put a bed in there for the boys," Fix said.
"A bathroom!" said Tracy. "I can't wait to take a shower."
She sank into the sofa someone had planted by the window. "A window," she said, wiping her red eyes. "I have a window."
All afternoon, strangers kept coming: sheets and pillows, lamps and tables, a purple bar stool, a TV stand . . . then a TV.
Paul sent over two foot-long subs. Vanessa sliced watermelon.
"I can't believe this," Tracy kept saying.
"Look what I found," Fix called about 6 p.m. Her arms were filled with clothes and shoes and a rolled-up poster. "See?" she said, unfurling it. "SpongeBob! I thought your boys would like it."
Tracy took the poster. "Yeah," she said. "That's their favorite."
"Want me to hang it?" asked Fix.
"I'll let them do it," Tracy said, rolling it back up.
"Well let's go get them," said Fix.
Tracy shook her head. "First, I gotta go fly."
• • •
When Fix spoke again, her voice sounded tight. She told Tracy she wanted to drive her close to her camp and wait while she packed her stuff and got the kids.
Tracy insisted they had to keep the camp secret. Besides, she said, she and her kids and all their gear would never fit in Fix's car.
"I gotta go fly my sign again, just long enough to get us bus money," Tracy said. "You take me back under the interstate and I'll get the cash, then go get the kids. We'll all meet you back here tonight."
Fix shook her head. "The thought of you having to go back out there on the streets . . ." she said. "How much is bus fare?"
"We need $3.50 each, for five tickets," Tracy answered quickly.
So Fix borrowed $20 from her son and handed it to Tracy. She also gave her the key to "Lucky No. 7." She wrote down her cell phone number and told Tracy to call from the bus station, please, so she would know when they were heading home.
Under the interstate, she told Tracy, "I can't wait to meet your kids."
• • •
Vanessa set the courtyard tables. Paul made a huge pot of spaghetti. A dozen would-be neighbors waited under the wind chimes to welcome the new family.
The sun sank. The moon rose.
Fix kept checking her watch, wondering how late the city buses run, and why her phone didn't ring.
At midnight, Vanessa filled five plates with the dinner they'd saved and stashed them in the refrigerator of what was supposed to be Tracy's apartment. Fix spread sheets across the mattress and couch.
They left the light on in No. 7. It started to rain.
• • •
Something must have happened. Why else would a widowed mom not bring her three kids to a free home?
What if Tracy got hurt and those kids are out there all alone in the woods, waiting for her? Fix kept wondering and worrying. For days, she circled under the interstate, hoping. Helping Tracy had been an act of faith, and like all acts of faith, it meant believing in something she couldn't see. She didn't regret anything she'd done, but her faith was being seriously tested.
She asked other panhandlers: Sure, they'd all seen Tracy. A few hours earlier. Or maybe that was yesterday. No, she never had any kids with her.
Weeks went by. Finally, Fix found her. Flying her sign. She called the Times later and described the encounter.
She said Tracy stammered something about her daughter — you remember, the one with cerebral palsy? Well, she got sick and had to go to the hospital. The boys? Ahh, they were there with their sister, in the hospital room.
Of course, Tracy told Fix, she still wanted that apartment. They just hadn't had a chance to get back over there.
"I can't hold it forever," Fix said. "But it's still there for you — and your kids."
The watermelon had rotted. The spaghetti dinner had to be sacrificed long ago. But the makeshift home was still waiting for the homeless woman and her invisible family.
Fix still wanted to believe. She even set some books on the TV table, including a novel called A Simple Act of Kindness.
Tracy never saw it.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.