ST. PETERSBURG — At precisely 3 p.m., the moms of the Mosley Motel make their way to the back gate. Before too long, a yellow school bus arrives and a dozen elementary school children bound down its steps.
Leland Steffen is among them. He's 7, a rare kind of second-grader who loves reading as much as video games. His mother, Melissa, runs a hand through his faded blue Mohawk as he pulls a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from his backpack.
He's eager to show Mom how far he has gotten into the book — almost to Chapter 3.
She carries his backpack as he talks and they head to their home of nearly two years, an efficiency that rents for a little over $800 a month at one of St. Petersburg's most notorious motels.
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Despite the Mosley Motel's infamous past, despite the fact that seven sex offenders call the place home, and despite the fact that the city recently decided to stop using it as a temporary shelter for homeless families, things there are the best they've ever been, according to several residents and manager Al Kadury.
"The present Mosley is not what it used to be three, four, five years ago," Kadury said. "This place is not an unsafe place for kids. It's more safe than anywhere else on 34th Street."
Kadury, 48, who once served in the Israeli army and ran a string of tourist shops along the coast, came to the Mosley three years ago, about the same time the city's nuisance abatement board threatened to close the motel if it didn't clean up.
Kadury said there has been a change. He screens people more closely. He allows sex offenders because they're often referred to Mosley by charities, but he notifies residents of their presence and tries to monitor them. He doesn't rent to drug dealers or prostitutes and kicks people out when they don't follow rules about loud music or excessive drinking. And with the help of local charities he calls "angels," the motel provides toys, meals and services to the families that occupy most of the 110 rooms.
Police data show that calls for service to the Mosley, at 401 34th St. N, are the lowest they've been since 2012, but still more than other 34th Street motels the city has used to house homeless families.
Kadury thinks city officials aren't willing to free the Mosley from its past — or one of its owners, Mike Shimshoni.
"The city is trying to put us down. It's funny how churches feel comfortable, but the city doesn't," he said. "Is it because it's the Mosley or is it because of the people standing behind the Mosley?"
Council members say they don't think the motel is safe. They also have not been quiet about their feelings about Shimshoni, who racked up thousands of code violation fines on numerous properties over the years. No current nuisance complaints are pending against the motel.
Kadury said he has no problem with the city's decision to stop placing families there. He has a waiting list anyway.
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Mary Bell knows about the Mosley's reputation. It's why she moved there.
"The management here is incredible," Bell said. "It's so hard to explain this place if you've never been in our shoes and been on the inside."
Bell, her fiance and their children came to Florida a few years ago from Missouri to help her mother, who was facing foreclosure.
Bills piled up after Bell was injured in a car accident and her mother moved to a smaller place. A friend told Bell the Mosley accepted families, had a gate and 24/7 security.
Kids are given backpacks at the beginning of the school year. Churches and other organizations regularly drop off donations. The hotel has brought in tutors to help with homework, and last summer sent every child there to summer camp for 11 days. Most of them had never been.
"These are opportunities we wouldn't be able to provide our kids," Bell said.
Kim Tomlin, 40, moved her three youngest children into the Mosley about a year ago. Her boyfriend has a room, too, so they have more space. A few weeks ago, her 23-year-old daughter checked in as well.
"It's just so hard," Tomlin said. "If the City Council is so concerned, why aren't they helping us? It's always the same people getting the money."
Tomlin has a criminal record and served jail time for drug offenses.
She and her boyfriend are supporting their family with fast-food wages. They don't have a car.
"The hardest part is trying to save money," Tomlin said. "We can't."
Michelle White is one of the newest residents. She and her family arrived about six weeks ago from Clearwater, where they stayed in a motel.
"We need some help because there's not enough low-income family housing around here," White said. "And this ain't no place to raise kids."
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Everyone who deals with the homeless or working poor understands the lopsidedness of needs and available resources, said Marcie Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County.
A few years ago, Biddleman said, the JWB started a family service initiative that provides wraparound services to people. About a year ago, the agency began a small program with St. Vincent de Paul and the St. Petersburg Free Clinic to provide about 30 shelter rooms for homeless families.
That's not always enough. So, like St. Petersburg, the JWB sometimes places people in hotels.
They were careful about which ones they picked. Biddleman said she sent a team to inspect hotels and motels all over the county.
Her staff determined that the Mosley was not acceptable.
"The Mosley has never been one we use because of the fact that they do have registered sex offenders," Biddleman said. "I can't take a chance with someone else's family."
Only one motel in St. Petersburg — the Comfort Inn, off 54th Avenue N — made the JWB's top-tier list.
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St. Petersburg officials say they used the Mosley because it helped them stretch their dollars.
In fiscal year 2013, the city used the Mosley 38 times, spending just over $6,000. Since October, the city used the Mosley 30 times, according to records from the city's homeless vouchers program.
From 2012 to present, the Mosley had more than 700 calls for police — twice as many as other motels the city used, such as the Kenwood Inn, Kenwood Village Inn and the Crystal Inn. Police caution that calls for service do not always mean an incident took place at the motel — it could have happened on the street nearby.
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Melissa Steffen, 32, is a housekeeper at the beach, and her boyfriend does landscaping and other day labor.
The couple and Leland used to share a home with friends but wanted their own space.
Their room has a kitchen area with a two-burner cooktop and a full-sized microwave and refrigerator. Leland does his homework at a coffee table pulled close to a futon. When he's done with chores, he gets to play with his friends at the motel or swim in the "pool in his front yard."
For them, the Mosley is home.
"We've had the money to move out of here two or three times," she said. "We haven't wanted to leave."
Times photographer Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.