Thursday, October 25, 2012

TAMPA (FOX 13) - Wilbern Leonard never thought he'd have a house to call his own. For a year, he lived on the streets.

"I didn't think it'd happen. I thought I'd be one of those people that, the concrete jungle gets ahold of you and the next thing you know, you're in trouble."

But instead, Deputy Steve Donaldson got a hold of him. He's with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and known as the 'Homeless Deputy.'

Two years ago, he started a homeless iInitiative. It's called Homes of Second Chances.
"The philosophy is successful," explained Deputy Donaldson. "When we take people off the street, when does rehabilitation begin. It begins the moment we put them under a roof."
The homes are not in foreclosure. Most are vacant homes.

"The moment it's vacant, people start vandalizing it, moving in, stealing air conditioning, which is what happened here," Donaldson continued. "They steal the water heater, which is what happened here."

He got the homeowner, Jane Keys, to lend them the house. It's been vacant for three years. Deputy Donaldson brought in companies to renovate. Team Home Depot brought all the supplies and some manpower. ARS donated the entire air conditioning system.

"It's a zero-cost project. There's not a dime that is affecting the tax-paying citizens," Donaldson said.
Wilbern can't wait until the house is finished.

"I think it's just the greatest thing that this house is going to be remodeled. And not only that, I'm going to be living in it."

It's the fourth house renovated and occupied by a former homeless person. They can live in the house for up to a year, rent-free. But at that point, Deputy Donaldson says they have to show some forward movement, they have to show progress, that they're working to get back on their own two feet.
Albert Swiger is the poster child for turning your life around. For most of his life, Albert was a drain on society.

"I have over 200 arrests, not something I'm proud of," he admitted.

He met Deputy Donaldson when he was holding a "Will Work for Food" sign along Hillsborough Avenue and the Veterans Expressway. The deputy decided to take a chance on Albert, and Albert is thrilled he did.

"It's a blessing. To go home and take a shower, stuff like that, go to the refrigerator, get a cold drink, cook something hot to eat, having a bed to sleep in."

Jane Keys says it's a win for her too. She get a renovated house and as soon as he can, her new tenant will start paying rent.

"I just couldn't get on top of it, it just kept getting worse and worse."

Wilbern can't wait to get in and start up his love for cooking.

"It's going to be a blessing to, instead of opening a can of beans or some ravioli and eat it cold, it's going to be nice to go back to cooking again."

For more information, check out Deputy Donaldson's Facebook page:

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