Advertisement
  1. Business

Group home for at-risk kids causes stir in pricey waterfront neighborhood

SailFuture, which says it rehabilitates male at-risk teens, purchased this home on 68th Avenue S in St. Petersburg.
SailFuture, which says it rehabilitates male at-risk teens, purchased this home on 68th Avenue S in St. Petersburg.
Published Aug. 27, 2016

For months, neighbors in St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point area wondered what would become of the large, aging waterfront house with its wide-open view of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

So when the "for sale'' sign disappeared in June, their thoughts ran along two lines: "We were hoping it would be either an investor who would demo it, because it was pretty rundown, or a homeowner with a family,'' says Mary Weber, who lives next door with her husband and two children. "That would be nice for us if another family came in.''

A family of sorts is moving in but not the kind the Webers expected. Or want.

For $742,500, a nonprofit Sarasota organization called SailFuture bought the six-bedroom house and will use it as a group home for at-risk teenage boys, some of whom could have criminal records. They will be part of a unique, untested program in which they will learn to sail on a 65-foot boat — Defy the Odds, now moored a few hundred yards from the house — and live together in a family-like setting meant to foster maturity and responsibility.

"It's a home for youth that have been abused and neglected and placed in the child welfare system,'' said Michael Long, SailFuture's 24-year-old founder. "Our purpose is to provide a safe and appropriate home that is going to allow boys to grow and develop into positive members of our community.''

Many neighbors are highly skeptical.

"I have sailed all my life on motor and sailing vessels,'' said Richard Heston, a Tampa Bay harbor pilot whose house is next door.

"The youngest members of the crew were mostly engaged in conversations about girls and booze when they get to the shore. The snow job Mr. Long is presenting but is nothing but taking advantage of political connections, public/private charities and taxpayer funds.''

Heston's wife, Irina, said tearfully that she has already had a taste of what she fears lies ahead. Late one night while her husband was away and she was alone with their 11-year-old son, a man pulled his kayak up to her seawall, then scampered across to the SailFuture property.

"I couldn't be safe in my house when people are climbing from the water onto my property,'' said Heston, who called police. Other times, she said, young men working on renovations next door made obscene gestures at her as she sat by her pool.

"I don't like to go outside anymore,'' she said.

Long later apologized to her, though he notes that a small fence separates his property from the Hestons and doubts that one of his crew was on their seawall. As for the gestures, "That's the first I've heard of that,'' he said this week. "I would strongly refute that.''

Neighbors have also wondered why a nonprofit organization needed — or could afford — a prime piece of bayfront property. In its most recent filing with the IRS, SailFuture reported just $38,000 in annual revenues. Asked where it got nearly $750,000 cash for the house , Long said it was a loan from an individual who is a "pretty fly-under-the-radar guy.''

"We have some pretty passionate supporters,'' he added, including a Turkish man who donated Defy the Odds

That name could be an apt description of Long's own life so far.

Shuttled between divorced parents, he got into trouble in high school stealing guns, cars and credit cards. But when he was placed in a juvenile justice program, an admissions officer told him "you don't belong here'' and encouraged him to straighten out. He went on to New College, winning one of just 62 Truman Scholarships awarded nationwide in 2013, and became the youngest person to serve on the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

Still in college, Long started SailFuture as an after-school mentoring program that paired college students with teenagers at risk of expulsion or dropping out. Then he put it in hold while serving as an intern in U.S. Rep. David Jolly's Washington, D.C., office.

"After a couple of months I realized what I was passionate about,'' he said. "I came back to Florida and worked with a couple of people to try and build SailFuture into what it is now, to create this intervention exercise that would lead to changes in behavior using the boat as a platform.''

SailFuture began accepting a tougher group of teens — juvenile offenders in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties referred by judges and probation officers as an alternative to incarceration. Some of the kids, Long said, fared better on the water than on land.

"We could create these amazing experiences on the boat but what happened when they got home?'' Long said. "When guys left the boat, often times they'd go back to unstable home environments or even homeless situations. We recognized that an important part of the program was housing.''

With real estate agent Bobby Poth, Long spent several months "looking at pretty much every neighborhood'' in St. Petersburg. This spring they found the 4,450-square-foot Pinellas Point house, owned by Edward Helm, a former candidate for mayor. In disrepair, it had been on the market for months, and Helm and his wife sold it for nearly $150,000 less than the original asking price.

"We worked with city zoning every step of the way to make sure'' the site could be used for a group home, Poth said. City codes allow "community residential homes'' of six or fewer residents as long as they are not within 1,000 feet of a similar house.

Poth said worries about a group home in a residential area are overblown. "I have three within 1,000 feet of my house and I didn't even know they existed until I started researching this,'' he said. "Michael is very clear that he wants to be a good neighbor and community partner.''

Suspicion and distrust, though, began to build soon after the "for sale'' sign came down.

In an email to neighbors after the deal closed, the Helms said Long had asked them not to tell nearby residents how he intended to use the property. The Helms could not be reached for comment for this article, and Long denied trying to hide anything.

"I only asked them to hold off making introductions until we got the house fixed up,'' he said.

Neighbors say it was only when volunteers from a St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce group arrived July 31 to help clear the property that they learned a home for at-risk boys was planned for an area full of children, including a 16-year-old girl across the street .

"Everybody is so upset; Everybody is just beside themselves this could happen,'' said Weber, whose kids, 4 and 9, play in a yard next to the SailFuture house.

Long and his staff have no experience running a group home "so they're experimenting in a family neighborhood,'' added Russ Lynn, who lives nearby. "It's an accident waiting to happen.''

They and other neighbors have met with St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, both of whom represent the Pinellas Point area.

"I understand the concerns, but I'm not sure what the city can do," Kornell said.

For decades, AMIKids, originally known as the Pinellas Marine Institute, has operated a program in St. Pete Beach that teaches youthful offenders sailing and other skills. But that is a day school and is not in a residential area like the SailFuture house.

Long acknowledged that some SailFuture participants have re-offended, including one who is now in jail in Chicago on gun charges. But he said the organization has switched focus — it will only take boys 16 to 18 referred by Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead child welfare agency in Pinellas and Pasco. When the house is ready for occupancy, it will be under the purview of the state Department of Children and Families.

The six teens who will live in the home must meet certain criteria set by Eckerd, Long said. They cannot have "extreme behavioral health issues,'' need intensive mental health or substance abuse services or have been prescribed psychotropic drugs.

However, he said, some could have criminal records.

The teens will spend three months on Defy the Odds, sailing to various Florida ports where they will do weeklong public service projects. The rest of the year will be spent at the house where the live-in staff will include a mental health counselor, a teacher and house parents.

"We will commit to this being their sole residence until 18 and work with the same house parents so it will truly be a normal, family environment,'' Long said.

Though it has yet to be licensed, SailFuture so far is meeting all requirements. "Once the group home is up and running, if there are any concerns, DCF in partnership with Eckerd will address accordingly,'' a DCF spokesman said.

Long is hosting a meeting at the house Monday night to explain the program and let neighbors air their concerns. Not all nearby residents are opposed to having the home in their midst.

"I do feel for those who have children. I would be concerned, too,'' said Neil Sturmoski, who is in his 60s. "But if they bring in decent kids who have a bum rap in life, who were in foster care or who because they were poor didn't have mommy or daddy to get a lawyer to get them off — now they're getting a second chance.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.