ST. PETERSBURG — The reveal was six months in the making. The Leadership St. Pete class had given up every weekend to renovate Alpha House, a shelter for homeless pregnant women and new moms.
Aaron Swift had invited his mom, Kim Swift, knowing she'd be impressed with the work. They were walking down a back hallway when Kim paused to look at a picture on the wall. It was a black and white photo of a brick house. The original Alpha House.
She looked at her son. "I think we stayed here," she said.
He was floored.
Aaron knew he had been homeless when he was a child.
In 1987, his mother's boyfriend, in a drunken rage, took an ax to the family's three-bedroom home, decimating everything from the dining room set to his grandparents' old bed frame. That night police took Aaron, his mom and his brother, Jess, to Alpha House, then a shelter on Second Avenue N in downtown St. Petersburg.
They stayed a month. His mother realized she was pregnant. They moved back in with her boyfriend.
Kim was seven months pregnant when her boyfriend shoved her into a wall later that year. She and the kids returned to Alpha House. Her daughter, Angie, was born in August, and by September, the mother of three decided to move them away from her abuser. They stayed in a string of shelters in Pennsylvania before settling down in an apartment.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years.
Aaron, now 32, always had a romantic idea of returning to St. Petersburg. In 2008, he started law school at Stetson, and after graduation, he landed a job as a lawyer at LeavenLaw.
Kim, now 56, had always wanted to come back to St. Petersburg, too. Her son moving back was the final push she needed; in 2011 she and her husband, Mike, moved back.
By 2015, Aaron was tired of talking to lawyers all day. He applied for Leadership St. Pete, a competitive program where young professionals are selected annually based on their involvement and prominence in the community to complete a major project in St. Petersburg.
He got in.
At the same time, Alpha House executive director Jennifer Stracick was putting together a presentation to persuade Leadership St. Pete to select Alpha House as its annual class project. The shelter moved to Fifth Avenue N in 1991 and still needed major renovations.
For a while, Aaron didn't share his childhood with his classmates. He didn't want to monopolize the project with his history.
"It's not guilt or shame or embarrassment," he said. "But it's not easy to talk about."
Alpha House has shifted over the years from a rapid rehousing home to a more traditional shelter. Now, women can stay up to 18 months while they work or go to school. There are parenting classes and counseling sessions, and they have access to food and clothes for themselves and their children.
In the last three years, Alpha House has housed more than 60 adults and more than 50 adolescents. More than 40 babies have been born. Today, residents from 14 to 41 years old fill the rooms, and there are 19 people on the waiting list.
"People call every day," Stracick said.
The building needed a facelift, and Alpha House didn't have the money for renovations. People could walk in off the street, due to a subpar security system. The mechanized gate that surrounds the parking lot was broken, and the building wasn't completely babyproofed — the brick fireplace in the TV room had to be barricaded with tables and chairs to keep toddlers from crawling into it.
The class had its assignment.
The renovations were estimated at $125,000. The class raised more than $160,000.
They fixed the broken gate and upgraded the security system. The fireplace was demolished, and the TV room got new furniture and a play area for the kids. They put in a computer lab and transformed the back patio into a serenity garden with baby swings.
"We did two and half times what they asked for," Aaron said.
Each year, the class votes on one member to join the organization's executive board. This year, Aaron was selected.
One of his missions is fundraising because Alpha House is still struggling financially.
"The face of homelessness shouldn't be the panhandler who's approaching you and making you feel uncomfortable," he said. "Homelessness is so different from one to the next ... You can't treat them the same."
Today, sunlight streams through the big bay window into the bright waiting room. A tree painted on the lobby wall reaches its limbs out, its trunk sturdy just above the floor. The twisted branches are barren of leaves, but budding pink flowers are sprouting on each twig. Across from the mural, a flowery sign reads "Life is beautiful."
Kim wishes Alpha House — or any one of the shelters she stayed in — was like this when she was there. This isn't a catch-all facility where anyone can stay for a few weeks, she thinks. It's a place where women can grow.
It doesn't feel like a homeless shelter, she said. It feels like a home.
Contact Hannah Jeffrey at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @hannahjeffrey34.