TAMPA — She sleeps on a broken couch by the front door with a hammer.
Inside, three sons are in their beds, two granddaughters in hers.
Sharon Robinson-James is holding off a neighborhood.
She has nearly raised seven kids by herself in the blue house on the corner of Caracas and 32nd streets where she grew up. Drugs and other crime crouch outside. Sometimes they've slipped in.
There was the boyfriend, she said, who got her into dealing cocaine, which took her away to prison for five years. There was a gang that killed her son as he walked to a store one night nearly three years ago.
Now Robinson-James, 46, finds her strength on dog-eared pages of a Bible opened to Psalm 100. She has circled the fifth verse: For the Lord is good and his love endures forever.
She locks herself in her bedroom and prays on a white plastic bench next to a closet with blown-up pictures of her dead son. He is wearing a white suit. She turns over her troubles to God. Then she hopes he hears her prayers.
This weekend, she will know for sure whether he has listened to at least one.
• • •
The roof on the house her parents left her is leaking, and electrical wires dangle outside along a wall. Another live wire, on a kitchen wall, leads to the garage. Robinson-James uses a broomstick to turn the light switch on and off.
She warns her granddaughters not to touch: "It'll bite you."
They live with her, along with her three sons. She patches together a budget from child support, food stamps, and by cleaning houses and doing yard work. It's not enough to keep up with the house.
The master bedroom is a teenager's cave. A ceiling fan swings crookedly. Its socket won't hold a light bulb. Water has damaged the bathroom walls and left it musty.
D'Andre Coachman was 16 in 2007 when he reluctantly became the man of this house. His brother, Andre Coachman Jr., had been 19.
They were walking to a store together, still in sight of their home, when a pickup truck full of teens veered onto the curb. At least three rained gunfire at the brothers. The teens had been out for revenge against someone from Andre's neighborhood in connection with the beating of one of their cousins in state prison. They didn't know Andre, who had no part in the neighborhood gangs, and he didn't know them. One of them shot him in the head.
Two of them, a 15-year-old and 17-year-old, were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Another 15-year-old got a 28-year prison sentence.
D'Andre doesn't talk about that night. He and two sisters and a younger brother got tattoos to remember Andre.
Their grief poured out on bedroom walls in crayon. Wings encase their words: Live in the Sky. Man I love you. RIP.
Their mother was in prison at the time, the second instance when the family suffered the consequences of her choices.
In 1996, Robinson-James went to prison for 4 1/2 years, charged with trafficking in cocaine. Her mother had cared for the children until she was released in 2001. But her mother died in 2005, and a brother followed in 2006. In 2007, when she was caught with a firearm and charged as a felon in possession, she went back to prison, and her older children cared for the younger ones. She had kept the gun to protect her kids, she said. Now, she keeps a hammer.
The day Andre died, a letter to his mother arrived at the prison.
"You'll be proud of me. I got a car and I'm still paying all the bills," he wrote.
Days passed before a chaplain told Robinson-James he had been shot. Authorities allowed her to go to the funeral. She had always told the former Middleton High football player that he was the man of the house. He liked to dress in suits and had worked 10-hour days in a cafe at the University of South Florida to support the family.
His mother was angry with God. But one day, she said, Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to her in a dream.
She had watched her own son beaten down, suffering and dying, Mary said. She reminded Robinson-James that Andre had been God's child before he was hers.
• • •
Earlier this year, a group of people were looking for someone to help. They needed a family with a structurally sound home in need of repairs, someone who would have a broader impact in the community. Led by Jason Sowell, a Tampa man who founded faith-based nonprofit Current of Tampa Bay, they formed the Hope for Homes Project.
Positive Spin, an organization that helps people in need, recommended Robinson-James. She had turned her life around since leaving prison. She's a hard worker and devoted to her children, the people at Positive Spin said. She counsels neighborhood children to stay out of trouble, using her experiences as a cautionary tale.
Hope for Homes organizers figure their efforts here will expand beyond Robinson-James' corner lot home and beautify the street. This will be their first rehab.
Last month, group members took Robinson-James to lunch and told her their plans. They would replace the leaky roof. Rewire the house. Replace toilets, bathroom and kitchen sinks, cabinets and countertops, lights and water-damaged walls. Paint, inside and out. Repair the porches and bring in new dishes, beds and furniture. Many of the materials were given by area companies. They estimate the value of the makeover at $18,000, all from private donations.
Robinson-James remembers the day she heard the news. On the way home she asked Brian Butler, an organizer who was driving, to pull over so she could catch her breath. She knew God answers prayers, but this one she could barely believe.
Work crews plan to start today. Donations will pay for the family to stay in a hotel for the weekend. They have tickets to Busch Gardens for Saturday and the Florida Aquarium on Sunday. At 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a stretch limo provided by Grand Dames Car Service will bring them to a completely renovated home.
Most everything will be new. But painters will save one of the crayon memorials to Andre, the one with the circle that says "live in the sky."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.