Thursday, October 25, 2012

Making a Difference: Deputies rebuild for the homeless

 Tampa, Florida -- About two years ago, the paths of two men crossed, changing the course of both of their lives. One was homeless, battling drug and mental issues. "I was holding a sign on the side of the road to survive," said Albert Swiger. 

The other, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy, patrolled the streets noticing the growing problem of panhandlers in the community. It was on the side of the road where the two met, as Swiger held his sign begging for someone to help. As the community debated about what to do about the panhandling problem, Deputy Steven Donaldson decided to fix it. "The answer to homelessness is housing," he said. "If you want to solve a problem, the person closest to the problem has the best answer."

The answer was simple. Many of the homeless, like Swiger simply want a home. This is where the idea of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Homeless Initiative was born, the brainchild of Deputy Donaldson. He didn't want to just help the homeless find a shelter, he wanted to provide them with a place to live where they can focus on getting their lives back on track. So, he developed "Homes of Second Chances," a program that takes borrowed homes and transforms them into homes with the homeless using donated time and supplies. 

"It didn't start in a boardroom, it started in the street," said Deputy Donaldson. The "borrowed" homes are not in foreclosure. They have simply become a burden to the property owner who cannot sell or rent the property. Many of these properties fall into disrepair, collect code violations, and become a burden on the neighborhood. "We unearthed a hidden demographic in the real estate market. Basically, these are homes that homeowners have given up on," explained Donaldson. The property owners put the house on loan and 'Homes of Second Chances' fixes them up with the help of donations from Home Depot Foundation and local businesses who donate time and supplies.

Swiger moved into the first home completed last December. It wasn't an entitlement though, he had to work for it. He not only put his own blood, sweat, and tears into the rehabilitation, he is also required to stay drug free and keep his focus on getting his life back on track. "I'm paying rent, paying my own bills, I have my own jobs I go to, make my own money, that's the growth factor in the program," he said proudly. He is now helping to rehabilitate the program's third home on Tampa's East Linebaugh Avenue.

"He's still part of this thing we do, they never really go away. It's almost a brotherhood," said Deputy Donaldson. Swiger is hoping his story will inspire future tenants. "It shows people who are there, here's somebody that's grown that much, that they can grow that much themselves," said Swiger.

The goal of the program is to place the homeless individual in the home for up to one year rent-free, as long as they are vetted to be fit for the rehousing program and take part in the rehabilitation. Wilbern Leonard will be moving into one of two bedrooms in the East Linebaugh home. He says he has been homeless for one year. Like Swiger, he met Deputy Donaldson on the streets. "There's a lot of times I'll catch myself in the middle of the night waking up and I still don't find it to be true, but then you look around, see all these people in the house and it reminds you, it's very much true," said Leonard.

Deputy Donaldson is still interviewing for a tenant who will take the second bedroom. He says trust has a lot to do with it. He puts a lot of his own time into these homes and already has a fourth home waiting for renovations. He does it all without help from the taxpayer. "It solves the problem immediately with the homeowner, it solves the relevant homelessness problem and we solved the neighborhood's problem all without any tax payer dollars," said Donaldson. 

The program is only about two years old, but he hopes to continue to expand it to help more people. The Sheriff's Office does not make it happen on their own, though. The Home Depot Foundation is a big donor, as are local business like ARS Heating and Plumbing that donated a whole house A/C unit and installation, US Installations donated the supplies and labor for flooring and All Weather Tree and Landscaping are donating supplies and labor for landscaping.

Businesses or individuals who would like to help with their time or cash donation can learn more by visiting

We asked Deputy Donaldson why he does what he does. The answer came easy, "I had a purpose as a police officer for 15-18 years, but now I have a more defined purpose and that defined purpose produces a product." The product is not just a home, but a life changed forever. "Humanity isn't dead. There are still some good people out there and Steven Donaldson is one of them," said Wilbern Leonar

Deputy Steven Donaldson
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
Homeless Initiative
District III Office: (813) 247-033

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