TAMPA — Dionne Hayes has a bachelor's degree and once lived in a four-bedroom house with a pool in Valrico.
Now she has one of the larger rooms at the Salvation Army's shelter for women and children on Florida Avenue.
Hayes, 42, shares the space with her 13-year-old niece, who calls Hayes mom.
Hayes never thought they would be homeless. She plans to never let it happen again. Hayes plans to move out next month and be smarter with her money. She'll make use of the strategies learned in a 15-week class called Getting Ahead, based on author Ruby Payne's ideas about breaking the cycle of poverty.
"Little things," Hayes said. "Like, I was giving Amscot $16 every two weeks."
Now she has a credit union, with lower fees than a bank and she's proud of the $100 still in her account when her last paycheck arrived. She plans to save some money for the next time something happens.
On Monday in a dim chapel at the shelter, Hayes worked on a speech about how the program helped her. Assisting her with the speech was Suzanne Oaks Brownstein from the Junior League of Tampa.
"Mention your daughter up top," Brownstein said.
Hayes has no children of her own but has raised four of her sister's other children.
The league paid for the program, first taught at the shelter last year when Hayes took it. A second class started this week. The Salvation Army had asked for life skills classes. Junior League president Stephanie Wiendl heard about the program and was sold on the advertised results.
"It breaks down class barriers," Wiendl said. "It teaches why you do the things you do."
The class, Hayes said, and another on finances changed her life.
"It was like a what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas group," she said. Confidential and therapeutic.
Hayes continued tweaking her speech.
"How's this?" she asked. "I was working in a Fortune 500 company in 2007 when I was laid off with a young daughter to feed."
Brownstein agreed, and urged Hayes to be specific about the work she did after she losing her job.
Hayes calls it "catching breaks," and she caught them where she could: a receptionist job, an answering service gig. A job caring for a man with schizophrenia had been the worst, and her last.
That was as close as she came to living on the streets in Tampa.
"It could have been me," she said. "I could have had to sleep on cardboard."
It was her birthday — Sept. 29, 2011 — when she moved into Salvation Army's Hospitality House. Still, she was determined to not get depressed.
"You have to will yourself: I'm not going to let this beat me," she said. "This is not me."
She learned about stereotypes and what the program calls hidden rules for people in poverty, the middle class and upper class.
They read an example of a woman and her kids in public housing with a large flat-screen TV who lived near a middle-class man who worked and made do with an old television.
She had lived both sides.
"Society looks at the homeless as lazy, shiftless people wanting to ride the system," she said.
She doesn't want to be that. She plans to work and go back to school to get a master's degree, even though her health has been bad. She has had two heart attacks and now has a mass on her lung.
She cleaned up her credit and now thinks of money skills as a responsibility to her child.
She learned that women in poverty often provide for the family and rescue men. When she lived in Valrico with her fiance, her life had been full with dinners out and weekend trips to Disney. She has a bachelor's degree in business administration from Florida A&M and supervised 19 people at a call center for a home-delivery pharmaceutical company. She was making about $30,000.
But things hadn't felt right in that relationship.
She acknowledges a weakness. Sometimes Hayes takes her role as provider and protector too seriously.
"Sometimes I'm too dominant. I like to put order to the chaos," she said. "We hear, 'We've got to raise strong girls.' But at the same time, does she always have to be a go-getter?"
Hayes made friends at the shelter and got a part-time job there as a house manager. She cooks dinners on Sunday for all the women and children, and they eat together as a family.
Her room has just enough space for two twin beds and a nightstand holding a TV, a cabinet stacked with food and another for clothes.
Its window overlooks Seventh Avenue.
She calls it her condo.
It's home for now, Hayes said.
"But I have an itching feeling," she said.
She plans to keep her job at the shelter and use her tax refund to get settled in an apartment.
"I need to be back in a home where I'm responsible for buying my own toilet paper," she said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.