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Female vets bring new life to old building

Like a lot of the cool old buildings of Ybor City, the two-story red brick with the tall curved windows and elegant black railings breathes history. Once a boarding house, it has held a century's worth of lives, including those of veterans just back from World War II.

Turns out the old place has a future as well. And it's funny: Like those who will soon fill its rooms again, this building was itself homeless, for a time.

Originally, it sat on 18th Street in Ybor City. But times change, and the mega-highway that is Interstate 4 had to be widened. There was no longer room for the big brick building, and so it was headed for demolition.

If you're used to seeing perfectly good structures smashed to rubble in the name of progress, what followed was a sort of urban miracle. The state Department of Transportation moved the brick behemoth as part of an historic building mitigation project.

With the help of steel beams threaded through to keep it together, it was carried it off to Columbus Drive and 13th Street and settled on a corner amongst burglar-barred old bungalows. It looks as if it has always been there.

The not-for-profit Tampa Crossroads, which runs programs in Tampa and St. Petersburg to help troubled folk find their way back into the real world, bought the old place. And so the building has persevered to become a temporary home to the homeless.

But not just any home.

And not just any homeless.

By the end of the year, this building will begin taking in 16 women, two per bedroom — specifically women who served their country and wound up on its streets anyway.

America has up to 8,000 homeless women veterans, including hundreds in the Tampa Bay area, most likely because of our proximity to VA hospitals. The need is there. Tampa Crossroads executive director Sara Romeo says she couldn't find a program specifically for homeless women vets closer than Boston.

"And we know that just putting a person in a bed is not the answer," she says.

The women in what's being called the Athena program will get a chance to get beyond drugs or alcohol, beyond abuse or violence or whatever problems have marked them. They will take classes to help them handle job interviews. They will train for the working world.

In the old building, they will sweep the floors and do their laundry and cook dinner together in the cool mint-green kitchen with the spotless white tiles. They will eat together, a patchwork sort of American family. At night, maybe they will sit outside on the wide porches, talking or not talking, the highway humming behind them and the city life on Columbus playing out below.

The place is still all chair rails and high ceilings and old-fashioned-style moldings, even with the practical new carpet and the gleaming coats of paint so fresh you can still smell it. Sunlight spills in through tall windows of rooms yet to be furnished.

An adjoining grassy lot might one day be a small park, a memorial to veterans. For now, the young fruit trees that may grow to give shade are but chin high. This place feels like both history and future, a shelter here a long time and looking to stay a bit longer. For women veterans who have fallen on hard times, here sits a shot at independence, at hope.

Female vets bring new life to old building 07/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 11:09am]
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