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Pinellas Hope raising $1.25 million for cottages made of shipping containers to replace tents

Millicent Perry remembers her first night in the tent. • She woke up to rain water dripping on her face during a storm and couldn't make it through the soggy ground for a piece of duct tape to patch the hole. She didn't stay for long after that first July night at Pinellas Hope, a shelter run by Catholic Charities that provides housing, food and other resources for the county's homeless population.

But in December, Perry was back at the shelter. This time she was housed in a shipping container redesigned as a cottage. It was the prototype of what charity officials hope will be many as the agency kicks off a $1.25 million fundraising campaign to replace most of the shelter's 300 tents with 50 of the repurposed containers, partitioned into three living units, that supporters say are cheaper, safer and more durable.

"Coming out of those tents and into those pods … it gives something back to you," Perry, 55, said of her move to the container. "I was gaining my pride back. I was becoming a human being and no longer ashamed."

The idea for the housing came from members of the Knights of Columbus St. Raphael Council No. 10157, a local branch of a national Catholic fraternal organization that has worked with Catholic Charities in the past, said Jerry Sirgey, the council leader. The council members came together about a year and a half ago to brainstorm ideas to upgrade the tents, which several members noted weren't practical in Florida's heat and frequent stormy weather.

They landed on the 8-foot wide, 20-foot long containers, which are strong enough to sustain Category 4 hurricane conditions and cost about $25,000 each to repurpose, a one-time cost that's cheap compared to the roughly $50,000 a year the group spends on replacement of the tents, said Pam Long, director of homeless and veteran services for the charity.

Kevin Greeno, a council member who owns a carpentry and painting business in St. Petersburg, worked with Coastal Alliance Group, a local contractor, to design a prototype. The containers, which the shelter coined "Hope Cottages," are insulated and air conditioned with three separate units that include a bed, window and lockable door.

"From a construction standpoint, the speed and cost-effectiveness of taking it to the stage where you've got your frame, your doors, your windows — it's cheaper than construction. And it's more durable," said Patrick Millirons, president of the Coastal Alliance Group.

They finished the first container late last year and moved it onto the shelter grounds off 126th Avenue N, ready in December for the first group.

That first cottage came just in time for Perry, who was on the verge of homelessness again while living in an apartment with two roommates who stopped paying their rent shares, she said.

Instead of the tents, Pinellas Hope officials offered to let her stay in one of the rooms of the container — more livable accommodations that made all the difference in piecing her life back together from a slow decline.

Her slide to homelessness began 15 years ago when the father of three of Perry's five children died of kidney failure. Without a high school diploma, Perry got a job manufacturing plastic molding that she had to leave a decade later because of tendinitis she got while working, she said. Her monthly disability checks shrank after her youngest daughter, now 27, moved out. She lost her house, and she didn't want to burden her children, so the tents were her best option.

"Millions of people have my same story," she said. "Everybody that's homeless doesn't want to be homeless."

Less than a year later, in March, she moved into her own 247-square-foot efficiency apartment in Pinellas Hope II, a community for people transitioning from the tents to living on their own.

But she looks back with pride on her time in the container. Her container home is now one of five as the shelter moves forward with phase one, expected to be completed this fall with 12 containers. On a recent morning, Perry pointed out the cluster of cottages, standing beside the massive field of tents.

"That's humane right there," she said.

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Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.