DAVIS ISLANDS — Linda Karson realizes the irony of her situation. The woman who has devoted the past eight years to helping Tampa's homeless now spends every day trying desperately to get rid of her $2.4-million home. She dropped the original asking price by almost half a million. She wakes up each morning and diligently makes her bed, a chore she abhors. She boils cinnamon, a tip she learned to make the 6,200-square-foot mansion smell more inviting.
In some of the seven bedrooms, she swapped out colorful fabrics for boring beige because "neutral sells" — another tip she heard.
Three real estate agents have come and gone. Now Karson is using her own bag of tricks, including a "for sale" sign in her waterfront back yard for boaters to see and a dollhouse replica of her home on a pole in the front yard.
This has gone on for nearly two years, and she misses her husband, a former TECO executive who moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an energy lawyer.
He's waiting on her to come to their new home. In the meantime, Karson tries to help those without one, in her own special way.
Style and substance
Linda Karson is known for impeccable style. The perfect bob hairdo and careful makeup. The bold jewelry, designer ensembles and cute shoes to match. The scent of a sweet perfume.
This is classic Karson wherever she goes, be it a board meeting for a local charity or a day befriending downtrodden strangers along Florida Avenue.
The 56-year-old can often be seen trekking to parking lots and street corners handing out toiletries — including designer perfume samples — to homeless strangers. She stocks her car with water and food in case she sees someone who looks hungry.
"I know it looks like I'm crazy," Karson said, "but I have to do it."
She was ingrained with an activist's spirit as a child in the 1960s, when her parents took her to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The family also joined in the anti-war march to the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. She says she drank from "colored" water fountains in Miami.
She passed along her sense of helping and fighting for others to her son and daughter, now in their 20s, whom she raised while her husband, Richard Lehfeldt, worked high-power jobs. At her kids' bat and bar mitzvahs were tables where kids could make sandwiches for the poor and hungry. She brought the children along for marches or events to fight homelessness.
But lately, her mind for giving has been clouded by ongoing attempts to sell her home in a sinking market. Although the charming homes in South Tampa have not been as hard hit as in some other communities, Karson has not found luck.
She feels like she has one foot in Tampa and the other at her new home farther north. She stepped down from the various organizations and advisory boards because she never knows when she'll be coming or going.
'Linda gets it'
Since moving to Tampa eight years ago, Karson has made her mark in charity circles. Many remember the highly publicized Metropolitan Ministries controversy in 2001, when the homeless-oriented charity denied a woman's election to the board of directors because she was Jewish.
That woman was Karson, and Metropolitan Ministries has since changed its policy to allow non-Christians on its board. The incident stung Karson, who had just moved to Tampa from Washington, D.C. Still, she continued to volunteer with homeless charities, including Metropolitan Ministries, although she never joined the board.
"It's an old story, and I don't have any bad feelings about it," she said recently.
When the Salvation Army wanted to jazz up its plain family services lobby in 2004, Karson rounded up her artist friends to paint a splashy mural of flowers and animals.
"Of course, she's very colorful, and the murals are almost as colorful as she is," said Moira Hinson, Salvation Army's director of development of communication, who recalled that first encounter with Karson. She saw Karson often over the next few years, and she and her staff got a kick out of Karson in her fancy outfits accented with pins and bracelets that said "End Homelessness."
"No matter what the volunteer activity, whether it was a Memorial Day picnic for the homeless or a bottled-water drive, she was always dressed to the nines," Hinson said. "And she wasn't afraid to roll her sleeves up."
Bernadine White-King, who manages Hillsborough's homeless recovery program, connected with Karson not long after she arrived in Tampa. The two worked side by side at toy drives, soup kitchens and silent auctions. They cried together as they watched TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
"Linda gets it, and her passion doesn't change with her audience," White-King said. "She's a real and remarkable human being. She'll pull up at my office on Tampa Street and have a pile of designer clothes or a typewriter or a microwave to give.
"I just grieve when people like her and Richard leave, because they have the hearts of true people."
A little conflicted
Piled in Karson's hatchback, among the water bottles and spare clothes, are fliers advertising her home. She posts them wherever she can, and more people have been coming to look, she said. She thinks it'll sell within a couple of months.
She loves the home, which overlooks Hillsborough Bay and is still filled with quirky antiques and knickknacks to balance out the beige and make her feel happy. But she feels conflicted in her mission to get rid of something that she knows all too well would be a godsend to others.
"A lot of people in this economy don't have homes," she said, "and I have too many."
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.