TAMPA — Janet Santiago owed Tampa Electric $486, city of Tampa water $213, and Bright House $70.
Her checking account was $200 in the red.
The 58-year-old disabled woman has four grandchildren to feed and no job.
She knew what to do. Santiago and three of the kids recently went to the corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Bearss Avenue with a blue cooler and a cardboard sign.
Raising 4 teens
Ice cold water $1.00
"They want ice water over there," Santiago yelled in her gravely, Massachusetts accent, as cars honked. "Go, Jose, go!"
Jose Romero, 13, grabbed 20-ounce bottles of Sam's Choice water and sprinted to cars stopped at red lights. He scurried back, then stuffed dollar bills in a bucket once filled with a gallon of Good Day vanilla ice cream.
For the past year, this is how Santiago has paid the bills.
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Santiago and her husband retired to Florida in March 1988. "Came here with $119,000 clear," she said. "Bought the house cash."
According to Santiago, her husband blew through the money, didn't pay taxes and took out a mortgage on the house when the IRS caught up with him. "Well," she said, "the both of us." Court records show several domestic violence disputes and divorce proceedings that meandered through the system from 2003 to 2004. Santiago didn't get anything but the house — and the mortgage.
By then, she already was taking care of Joey Santiago, now 17, and Jose Romero. Melissa and Elizabeth Santiago, now 13 and 15, came next.
Department of Children and Families spokesman Terry Field said that the four children have been in the system "for a period of time."
Each child has been shipped to one abusive relative or foster home after another, Santiago said. The state removed Joey from his mother's house because of abuse. Jose's father and his mother, Santiago's daughter, were on drugs. Her youngest son dropped Melissa and Elizabeth at Santiago's house one day in 2004 and kept driving — all the way to Pennsylvania.
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It's not that Santiago won't work; she says she is on disability and can't work. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the result of years of smoking. She hasn't been able to walk the same since suffering an accident while trying to dock a boat in 1991. She gets around by motorized wheelchair.
Her $1,316-a-month mortgage eats up all of her $571 disability check — and then some.
For each girl, Santiago gets $298 a month from the state. For Joey and Jose, she gets more, $430 in disability checks, because both have ADHD.
She also gets $480 worth of food stamps. "Comes out to $96 per person," she said. "How do you bring up teenagers on that? They're older. They need."
With the exception of Joey, who refuses to go to school or work, the grandchildren cut lawns and collect aluminum cans to help their grandmother. The three youngest are students at Memorial Middle. "I'll tell you," Santiago said, "you ain't going to find kids like these."
She said she got the idea to sell water from a woman who was out of work and doing the same thing. She thought it would be an easy way to make ends meet. So she went to the Hillsborough tax collector's office and bought a $15 peddler's license.
She buys two 24-packs of water for $3.98 each and chills the water on ice. She usually parks her wheelchair on the front lawn of the Bay Cities Bank when lunch-hour traffic is thickest.
She said the Lord directs her to various corners. She sells water for two or three hours an afternoon, then goes home and counts the earnings. "We come out when we need," Santiago said. "When we needed electric, we had a sign to say, 'Grandma needed money to help pay the electric.' We don't lie. The Lord knows what we need, and if we're out here lying, we aren't going to get nothing."
She said she makes $100 total during the weeks she sells. Sometimes people give her bags of groceries or large pizzas. One time, Terry Pepin, the ex-wife of beer distributor Tom Pepin, handed over a check for $2,000 — the exact amount that Santiago needed to pay the property tax bill on her W Robson Street home, near Lowry Park Zoo.
"She told me how she takes care of her grandchildren, the problems that her son has and her daughter has," said Pepin, reached later by phone. "I prayed for her and asked God for a number. She said, 'You won't believe it. That's the amount I needed.' "
"That's how big the hearts are out there," Santiago said. "I just dropped my head and cried."
She admits hawking water won't help her in the long term. But she said she can't worry about tomorrow when there are needs that have to be met today.
"The bills are paid by the skin of our teeth," Santiago said. "We just thank the Lord for what we have, what he's given us."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5303.