CLEARWATER — Over the past two months, they've pulled carpet, painted walls, laid new flooring. They've tossed rotting food from the refrigerators, replaced busted doors, cleaned until that sour stench of an old drug house no longer lingered.
When renovations are completed in January, the tenants moving into these seven apartment units on Woodlawn Street will be coming straight from homelessness or something close to it. The crew of a dozen or so volunteers working to make it possible know just what that's like.
Eric Towns, 46, has spent the last four years living "here and there," hoping to move out of homelessness into a place like this. But that's not why he's been showing up to the apartments every week.
"It means everything to my heart," Towns said. "Contributing to this is contributing to God. You help when help is needed."
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The cluster of three apartment buildings at the corner of Woodlawn Street and S Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue represent the change community leaders in the Lake Belleview Neighborhood have been trying to make for years: a hot spot of drugs and crime transforming into a place of stability and hope.
The neighborhood has been a priority for the police in outreach and still the scene of some of the city's most gruesome murders. But it's also been a place where neighbors have come together over the last two decades, creating night patrols and helping establish a police substation, many efforts led by longtime activist Duke Tieman, now 85.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Not a shelter, not a food pantry, but a refuge for the homeless
"To me that is probably the area that I have the most concern for in the whole city," said Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter.
The Community Service Foundation bought the three buildings last year from Tieman, who hoped to pass it to an organization able to carry out his vision for the area, said foundation executive director Perry Bean.
Bean said the foundation acquired the property for affordable housing, using a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development loan through the city of Clearwater. And once they enforced new rules on the existing tenants known for drugs and crime, he said, "everyone essentially moved out."
At the same time, The Refuge church on Alden Avenue downtown was looking for a way to do more for the homeless people they serve. Since opening three years ago The Refuge has been a respite for the homeless, a place for Wednesday Bible study and Sunday service, sure. But it's more been a place for the homeless to gather every day as a family, with a couch to sit on and have a cup of coffee, a home base for those who don't have one.
Founders Shaun and Michele Powers have used their ministry to buy airplane tickets for wanderers needing to get home, to offer trips to the laundromat, to pay an overdue bill before someone's electric is turned off. But since they opened their church doors, they dreamed of building a housing complex for homeless people ready to move on from the streets.
With Community Service Foundation securing the buildings and the homeless community from The Refuge renovating the units, Michele Powers said it's been a vehicle to help those ready to help themselves.
"A lot of these people haven't always been homeless, but when they get into a place they don't always know what to do without help," she said.
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Under HUD rules, the Community Service Foundation can't accept applications for the 13 rooms within the seven units until renovations are completed in January. But most of the tenants will be referred from The Refuge's ministry.
Applicants must have some form of income, from part-time work, Social Security or disability, Bean said. And there are standards for criminal history the foundation won't budge from.
The cleanup already has been a relief to longtime residents on Woodlawn Street.
"All of this helps because we want this neighborhood to be better," said Willie James Byrd, 63, who has lived next door to the apartments since 1969.
Bean said the foundation is near its budget of $125,000 to restore the units to federal standards, but the mission is to go beyond "just barely good enough," to create an environment that prepares tenants for the next step after affordable housing.
"As counter intuitive as it may be for a landlord, our goal is for everyone to move out," Bean said. "The ultimate goal for everyone, which is a real possibility, is home-ownership because we believe that's what stabilizes neighborhoods and provides inter-generational financial security."
Along with donating hours of manpower, Powers said The Refuge donated $5,000 in materials, made possible by a grant from her father's company, Vesta Property Services. They've received so many donations of furniture, cookware, linens and other housing supplies they had to buy a storage container to hold it all. The Church of Scientology also donated $3,000 for renovations, a new kitchen for one of the units and referred a Scientology parishioner who is providing contracting services at no cost, Powers said.
Daniel Ramsey, 55, used to attend The Refuge as a place to take a load off, a break from living at friends' houses while he figures out his next step. Now it's been a way to put his 38 years of painting experience to use. He'd like to think one of these units might be his one day. But that's not the point.
"You've got to give back in life," he said. "Then you'll see the blessings 100-fold."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.