More than a year after sorting through red tape, Rose Thompson hasn't figured out how to save her house from demolition.
Navigating government bureaucracy can flummox the savviest of people, but for low-income, elderly and minority residents, the confusing maze of city agencies and a lack of faith in the system often make it more difficult to find the help they need.
Thompson, 65, owns the house at 2020 Seminole Blvd. S in St. Petersburg. She bought the 540-square- foot cottage for $3,000 in 1970. Through the years, the house fell into disrepair and the city began investigating the property for code violations. In February 2007, the city determined that the house was unfit for human habitation and moved the case to the demolition department.
Clifford Fulse, 47, Thompson's son, was living in the home and the city ordered him to leave. Thompson works in Sarasota and lives in another house she owns there.
As Thompson began to search for ways to save her house, the city directed her to the WIN program. Administered through the city's Housing and Community Development Department, the program provides home repair loans to homeowners and help selecting a contractor. Depending on the homeowner's income, loans may be repaid with zero interest or fully forgiven after 10 years.
Thompson began the family budgeting and home maintenance classes necessary to apply for a loan in June 2007, according to city documents. She received a certificate for completing both classes. But in October, program officials told her she needed to live in the home in order to qualify for the program.
"If it's not fit to live in, why did they want me to move back into the house?" Thompson asked.
Tom deYampert, manager of housing and community development for St. Petersburg, said Thompson misunderstood the requirements. He said they weren't suggesting that she move back into a house unfit for habitation, but that she needed to occupy the home after it was rehabilitated.
Thompson insists the city told her to move back into the house.
"They're lying," she said.
In the months since, Thompson has secured a $25,000 private loan and talked to a number of contractors as she continues to try to get her house fixed, but said she doesn't trust the contractors and thinks the city just wants her property.
"The city is taking advantage of me. They just want to tear down my house and take the land," she said. "I don't believe all that stuff is wrong with the house."
"That is totally untrue," said Bob Miles, St. Petersburg's building demolition coordinator. "That's probably a valid concern in her mind, but we just don't want people living in unfit and unsafe structures."
Photos of Thompson's home provided by the city show termite damage, holes in the floor, moldy walls and a broken, exposed sewage pipe in the yard. Miles said the city building officer estimated that rehabilitating the house would cost $60,000 to $80,000.
DeYampert called the city's housing program "the closest most people will ever come to winning the lottery," but said overcoming distrust poses a huge challenge.
"The biggest problem we have here is getting people to believe what we say is true," he said, adding that some people believe that if they sign a loan, the city will eventually take their property.
Vanessia Washington, director of programs for Pathways to Self Sufficiency, said she often sees people like Thompson who have little faith in the system.
"People have been made promises by the city that were never followed through," she said. "Many people perceive it's all about money and politics."
Washington said help is out there, not only though government agencies but private organizations like hers, the United Way and Neighborhood Senior Services, but a lack of transportation, inadequate computer skills, and an inability to grasp the complexities of the system hinder people from finding help.
Pearlean Borders, 57 and legally blind, left her St. Petersburg home for several months to visit her children. She returned to find her house and yard overrun with rats. She said she didn't know where to turn. When she reached the sanitation department after several days and numerous calls, someone told her she had to have all of her neighbors sign a form for the city to put out rat poison.
"How am I going to get out to all my neighbors?" she asked with frustration.
It turns out she received incorrect information or misunderstood. In fact, the city's outdoor rodent control program requires only a signed release from the property owner.
A St. Petersburg Times reporter helped Borders contact the correct city official, but she said the whole experience left her feeling that help won't be there if she needs it. She also needs home repairs. She said she doesn't know where to turn and has little faith she'll find help.
"It's hard the way they treat people. They don't treat you that way when they take taxes," she said. "When I was able to work, I had three jobs. Now when I need what I put into the system, I can't get it."