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In tiny apartments of Pinellas Hope, dreams of future grow

LARGO

The first time Wayne and Christine Green set foot in their apartment, there was only a bed, table and chairs, television, some linens and cookware.

Within months, almost all of the donated items were replaced. Personal touches are everywhere, from the red kitchen appliances to the shaggy blue rug with illustrations of coffee mugs to a black dining table with matching bamboo place mats.

It's progress. Only 2 ½ years ago, both were homeless.

A layoff plus failing lungs had left Wayne sinking in debt and unable to find new work. Soon, he says, he was sleeping on park benches, and eventually in a hospital bed. With nowhere to turn, he attempted suicide and ended up in a mental facility.

Turns out his thoughts about the end led to a new beginning.

He was referred to Pinellas Hope, a sprawling 9-acre campus for local homeless people run by Catholic Charities. There, he found work, referrals to social service resources and even the woman he would marry.

Today, the couple is months into a five-year plan to move from Pinellas Hope II, the homeless camp's transitional housing program, to their own apartment.

The Greens are among about 88 people living in Pinellas Hope II, a community of five 16-unit buildings where residents who have graduated from the adjacent "tent city" can take time to work toward self-sufficiency.

"I was a broken man when I showed up," said Wayne Green, 48. "They got me on my feet."

• • •

The rules can be strict for residents of the 247-square-foot efficiency apartments. No alcohol or drugs are allowed on campus, and there's random testing. Each resident must put in at least 10 on-campus volunteer hours a month.

But officials say that many of them do more, taking pride in pressure washing or tending the row of flowers lining the front yard or saving money tilling their patch in the community garden beneath signs tacked to the trees encouraging "Love," "Peace" and "Hope."

"It's just like any other apartment complex," said Mark Dufva, Catholic Charities CEO. "Many of the residents love the tranquility here. It not that urban setting. And it's nicer than living on the street or under a bridge."

It's an extension of Pinellas Hope, a largely experimental tent city that opened in an industrial area off 126th Avenue N as part of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The project was supported by local homeless advocates, government leaders and businesses.

Pinellas Hope II, the transitional housing portion, opened in 2010.

There's a 93 percent success rate, said Pinellas Hope II housing manager Rebecca Argentine-Mills. That's based on exit records, which track whether residents leave because of eviction, income changes or other reasons.

The goal is to teach residents how to budget, pay rent, save money, maintain a home and attend to other basic survival needs within five years.

"Most of the people since I've been here have left on their own and gone over to permanent housing," said Argentine-Mills. In 18 months in her position, she has found herself wearing different hats, including those of case manager and mom to some residents.

"I know every day I make a difference to somebody's life," she said. "I'm providing them a safe place to live, they feel they're progressing in their goals. … I know I'm providing them stability."

That's the charm, the Greens say.

"If you have to be homeless, it's the place to come because there's counselors and other services to get you back on track," said Christine Green, 42.

Her husband added: "You can really start to rebuild your life." He credits Pinellas Hope's vocational rehabilitation and placement program with landing him a part-time department store janitorial job.

"All the tools are here. You just have to find them and use them."

The program has even won over some critics, including Greg Nichols, who was initially irked when tent city hopefuls who were turned away for disqualification or space reasons trespassed or stole from the contracting company he owns across the street.

"I didn't think it was a very good residential location and it just wasn't suited for the proposed use," he said, but "after it was a done deal, I decided it was better to be friends than enemies."

Nichols built a fence, befriended the staff and offered to help the facility with site work and other projects. He has hired about 20 Pinellas Hope residents over the years.

And he might find more employees soon.

Dufva said Catholic Charities is in the final stages of obtaining state, county and federal housing funding for three more transitional housing phases, which will add 76 apartments, for a total of 156, and complete Pinellas Hope's vision.

Officials hope to break ground on the first phase within the next 30 to 60 days, the others by the end of the year, and have the entire project completed by fall 2015.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

>>fast facts

Pinellas Hope

The average resident of Pinellas Hope II is a single adult in his or her 40s who has transitioned from the "tent city." About 70 percent are on disability; the remainder must have been working at least eight weeks to qualify.

Officials say the $450,000 annual budget is composed entirely of rent from either residents, who pay 30 percent of their monthly income, or subsidies from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA's Transition in Place program secures apartments for ex-military members while they work to save money or await qualification for disability or pension benefits.

In tiny apartments of Pinellas Hope, dreams of future grow 05/29/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 1:36pm]
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