Retired Army Lt. Col. Carol Barkalow understands her tenants.
She remembers the grind of training and the camaraderie that stems from combat, not sleeping for 36 hours, and the feeling of mortar explosions echoing in her chest. She knows what it's like to fight overseas and come home to a different kind of battle.
"Veterans understand veterans," Barkalow said.
After 26 years in uniform, she retired to civilian life. Now she has a partner, a pension and a life she calls blessed. But she knows that not all veterans are as lucky. In Pinellas, 1,400 are homeless.
That's why she and her partner, Sheila Mutascio, founded Heaven on Earth for Veterans. For 2 1/2 years, they have been buying and renovating rundown homes south of Central Avenue and renting them to homeless veterans.
So far, they've housed 49.
Barkalow and Mutascio have short-term goals, like finding more money to buy more homes for more veterans. But they have bigger aspirations, too.
"Homeless vets is one number," Barkalow said, "but vets in need is a whole different number."
The women met in 2010, when Barkalow, 55, who works for the county, got her hair cut by Mutascio, 48, who owns a beauty shop. Barkalow had an "old lady perm." Mutascio fixed it.
Before their wedding last summer in New York, the pair sent their friends and family members a letter. They didn't want wedding presents, it said, only gift cards to Lowes and Home Depot — not for their own use, but for the veterans.
Technically the vets are tenants, but it's more than that.
"They're family," Barkalow says. "We're not landlords. We don't come once a month to collect the rent."
For $400 to $700 a month, veterans get a furnished private bedroom and shared common space, Internet and cable, all utilities, laundry facilities, linens and a kitchen stocked with cookware. All they have to pay for is food.
Nearly all the furnishings in the eight rental homes were either donated or discounted. A local couple provided the American flags that fly outside each home and donated $400. Cutting Edge Granite gave them a slab of kitchen counter, and Weather Tite Windows in Tampa offered a price cut for one home and donated six windows for another. Wholesale Direct AMZ has provided numerous pallets of bedding and pillows. Small monetary donations from the Veterans Boat Parade and the St. Petersburg West Rotary Club have helped with renovation essentials. One Korean War POW, Bill Allen, wrote them a personal check for $1,000.
But there are no deep pockets funding their operation.
"I've never been rich, and I will never be rich," Barkalow said. "But I get a pension and I'm doing fine. How much money can you have?"
The organization filed for tax-exempt nonprofit status in October, but didn't want to wait for the government's approval to start helping veterans and began operating as a nonprofit, which the law permits, almost immediately. The women said they refinanced their St. Pete Beach home twice, took out a home equity loan and have invested at least $300,000 of their own money. Once the IRS approves their application, Barkalow and Mutascio said they will apply for grants.
It's a team effort. Barkalow does the outdoor maintenance, and Mutascio is in charge of decorating the homes and cleaning each one every other week.
"She is a yard sale queen," Barkalow said.
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One of their first veterans was 60 when he moved in, Mutascio said, but he looked 90. He'd been homeless for 15 years.
He died in his sleep less than 30 days later.
"But he was around veterans and he was in a warm house," Barkalow said. "He wasn't on the street. He didn't die alone."
They had one man who was accepted but for his own reasons couldn't bring himself to move in. Another vet sometimes slept in a tree in his brother's front yard, just as he did as a sniper. Their youngest veteran was a 22-year-old woman whose struggles took her back into VA care.
Currently they have one tenant who's on active duty.
Lenard Allen, 60, has been in one of the homes for several months and says it reminds him of the good aspects of the military. There's an unspoken understanding. Together the roommates watch TV, clean and cook. The kitchen, he said, is their "chow hall."
"Everybody who comes into the house has a common bond," Barkalow said — a bond she shares, too. At 16, she knew she wanted to serve her country, and at 18 she left home to join West Point's first class of female students. For 22 years, she served in Germany, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
She also worked for the Pentagon. In 2002, she retired.
"It takes a lot of understanding and patience and time," Barkalow said of working with other veterans. "It takes time for them to understand that they're not going to get a raw deal again."
For now, acquiring more homes for more veterans is the couple's priority. In time, they'd like to go bigger. Barkalow and Mutascio said they admire the support the local VA provides Pinellas County veterans, but sometimes the aid doesn't come quickly enough.
The two think they can help.
They'd like to build a housing complex where veterans and their families could reside for free while they wait out the bureaucracy. There would be playgrounds for the kids and support for the parents. It would be a place in which to adjust.
But first, they have to do what they can with what they have. They have to gain the veterans' trust.
"This is a chance they can take," Barkalow said, "and they can take it on us."
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.