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Inmates chip away at debts to society

As the couple edged into their 70s, Alzheimer's disease attacked their bodies, and Robert and Rosa Butler were forced to move to nursing homes.

The house the couple shared on 17th Avenue S sat empty. With time came decay. Windows were broken, the garage roof buckled, and trash piled up in the yard.

After the costs of nursing care, the Butlers' Social Security payments could not begin to cover repairs to the old house, discovered Patricia Morgan, the Butlers' legal guardian. So, as city building and safety code violations and fines mounted, the house on 17th Avenue S seemed destined to wind up a heap of wood, concrete and glass.

"I threw my hands up," Mrs. Morgan said. "The city had been hounding me. They were fining me $100 a day, and there wasn't any money."

That is when 10 prisoners stepped in.

The men from the St. Petersburg Correctional Center, a state work release facility for felons in their final months of custody, hauled the junk away, removed the collapsing roof and painted the wooden boards that cover the home's windows. "It's immaculate," Mrs. Morgan said last week.

Coordinated by city community relations specialist Bob Gilder, a team of inmates and community members has painted, cleaned and repaired almost 20 buildings for three months. The grassroots-style volunteer effort has quietly grown into a daily sight at the homes of the elderly, sick, and poor in some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

"Our criteria is the neediest of the needy," said Gilder. "We're trying to clear up and fix the worst blight that we see. You'll see all segments of the community working together to help beautify this city and to help the needy."

The crew

Vennie Singleton is standing at the top of a rickety ladder and scraping paint from the side of a St. Petersburg house. It is a gusty, rainy March morning, and paint flakes are flying back into Singleton's face. They stick in his sweat.

Singleton does not notice.

"It feels great," Singleton said. "This helps the community, and it helps me."

Singleton, 44, has been behind prison walls since 1970 for robbery. Recently, he came to the St. Petersburg Correctional Center, one step closer to freedom.

Scraping paint off the Kenwood neighborhood house of a man with a dangerous heart condition and a limited income feels to Singleton like being part of society again.

"The general population _ everybody out here _ treats me normal," he said. "It's strange."

The 124 inmates in the dormitory-style facility at 4237 Eighth Ave. S are all within months of being released from the state's correctional system, said Maj. H. L. Nolan, who directs the St. Petersburg Correctional Center.

Most of them work regular jobs but return to the facility at night. Others are assigned to work around the center itself, where they cook and clean.

The ones who are not working yet or are on days off from their paying jobs can volunteer to work in the neighborhoods with Gilder. Plenty ask to go. Each day, between six and 10 men go, and about 45 of the center's inmates have participated, Nolan said.

The work brings them no money and no judges' favors, Nolan said. What it does leave the men, he said, is self-esteem and a sense of giving back to a community _ often the same community from which they took.

Nolan said corrections officials try to limit the risks. Sending inmates into neighborhoods should not alarm residents, he said, since most of the men are working jobs outside anyway.

"Public safety is the utmost in my mind," said Nolan, who reviews every inmate's record before sending him out into the city. "I look for everything. If I'm not confident with someone going out, I won't let him out."

This year, 2,185 men and 149 women are in work release programs across the state, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said. In 1993, 158 escapes were reported from the state's programs, she said. A year earlier, there were 109 such cases.

It is not easy to reach the low-security status, either, said spokeswoman Laura Levings. Inmates must be within 36 months of release, and their crimes, sentences and prison behavior are considered. "This is supposed to be a transition time to getting out," she said.

Hands on his hips, inmate Calvin Corouthers is staring up at the roof of the men's latest project on Fourth Avenue N.

"It's getting there," he said. "We've sealed the roof and now we're scraping the paint. Some of it won't come off."

Corouthers has been out with the volunteers before. He has cut grass, nailed doors and washed sidewalks, he said. Merely being outdoors is a treat. "It's fresh air," he said. "I love it.

"It gives me a better look at what I can do for myself," said Corouthers, a 32-year-old St. Petersburg man. "Really, it's just giving me an opportunity to share my skills with people. It's people helping people."

The needy

Vernell Porter's attacker beat her with a hammer and knife and left her for dead.

But Mrs. Porter survived.

She fell into a coma for 20 days, required facial reconstruction, and still faces regular hospitalization today, seven years after the attack.

Her physical disability made maintaining her house at 1040 18th Ave. S nearly impossible. Mrs. Porter had little money and no ability to repair the home's broken windows or door, paint the walls, fix the roof or pick up a yard full of debris.

Still, the deteriorating house drew the attention of city codes inspectors, who cited Mrs. Porter for violations and began fining her. As the fines grew, the house sank further into disrepair.

That is when the St. Petersburg Correctional Center _ and other members of the community _ stepped in. Nolan's inmates already had offered to volunteer for a neighborhood cleanup, so perhaps they also could aid in a community effort to fix up Mrs. Porter's place, Gilder figured. It was the start of a movement.

Supervised by Gilder, the inmates and other volunteers have worked in neighborhoods the city has identified as needing intense revitalization. Those older neighborhoods, such as Bartlett Park and Roser Park, have the largest numbers of vacant buildings and houses with code violations.

Codes inspectors, police officers and postal workers have come to Gilder and the city's so-called N-Team (the Neighborhood Team) with reports of the most run-down homes and the worst financial and physical situations. In those special cases, people need help, the inspectors and officers said.

For codes inspectors, the cases can be painful to handle. Homes have fallen into disrepair and may be dangerous, but the homeowners can't afford to fix them.

"You see an elderly or ill person who gets into a position where all they're living on is Social Security," said codes inspector Ronald Guynn. "It's a bare existence already, and then they try to maintain their property."

In those special cases, a "web" of codes department bureaucracy will not solve anything, said Neighborhood Partnership Director Mike Dove. "There has to be more than the hammer," Dove said. For the neediest, he added, Gilder's program helps.

Not the only answer

City officials haven't boasted much about the volunteer effort, though many city staffers _ from parks employees to sanitation and maintenance workers _ have helped it along.

In fact, they've been silent about it.

That's because it's still small, it's evolving, and it can't help everyone who has a rickety roof or needs a paint job, said Dove.

The inmates' program has happened spontaneously and operates on a shoestring.

Costs have totaled about $1,000 in city funds from the N-Team department, Dove said. Supplies have been borrowed or donated.

The concept might be expanded, said Mayor David Fischer, who praised the program as innovative. But no one is certain yet. The volunteer drive comes as Fischer is pressing for an improved housing stock, better codes enforcement and a reorganized, bigger department to enforce city codes.

"I don't want to expand it until it's ready," Dove said. "We're still experimenting."

There are other ways, too, that residents can help themselves, Dove said.

The city's affordable housing program can connect people with low-interest loans to pay for home improvements, he said. Another city program offers supplies to needy people to paint their homes. And people can create their own volunteer drives in their neighborhoods, he said.

"Why stop here?" Dove said. "I'd like to see more groups do these things. Churches and community groups can do these things, too. It doesn't have to be the city."