Friday, December 7, 2012

Deputy helping homeless help themselves

Arms folded, Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Steven Donaldson watched as the mini-blinds went up in the house on East Linebaugh Avenue. The house had languished in disrepair for years in the Castle Heights neighborhood, but now it was not only occupied, it was being fixed up.

Homes of Second Chances was working, and gaining ground.

In the program spearheaded by Donaldson to help the homeless, the business model is simple. Get people who own run-down, vacant homes to "loan" the property to the project for one year. In return, the houses are renovated for free and become homes for previously homeless men, who work on the renovation for the first year.

After that year passes, the rehabbers begin paying rent, as much as they can afford.

Materials are donated, as is some labor on bigger renovation jobs, Donaldson said.

He has mounted his attack on homelessness by trying to help one person at a time. There's nothing big or grandiose about the process, and virtually no bureaucracy. It's just Donaldson and some volunteers.

Donaldson has been with the sheriff's office for 18 years and now heads up the sheriff's homeless initiative. It's a path that began a couple of years ago when, as a road patrol deputy, he was asked to handle the panhandling problem in Town 'N Country.

 There, he saw that homelessness was taxing government, charitable and law enforcement resources, and came up with the idea for Homes of Second Chances.

The Linebaugh Avenue home is the third donated to the initiative. The rundown house sat vacant for three years, Donaldson said, and was inhabited by "uninvited homeless" before it was turned over to the project.

Now, new floors have been put in and the walls scraped, sanded and painted. The porch got new railings and steps.

"Eighty percent of the work is done by the guys who live here," Donaldson said. "It's all about rehabilitation. It's a chance for these people to show what they're made of.

"I'm not a homeless advocate," he said. "I'm an advocate for solving problems."

Ricky Jones and Wilbern Leonard now live in the two-bedroom, one-bath house and were putting up mini-blinds on Thursday.

Leonard was homeless for about a year, destitute as he waited for disability checks to start coming in, when he heard about Donaldson's project.

"This means a lot," he said as he handed Jones a level to make sure the blinds were just right. "You're doing the work; you're putting the sweat into it. And you know it's going to be your house. That in itself is worth it."

Not everyone is a good fit, Donaldson said. He screens candidates and puts them through a "boot camp" before they are chosen to participate. So far, all have passed muster, and more than 100 people have benefited from the program in one way or another over the past couple of years, he said.
He said his experience as a law enforcement officer gives him the ability to know by talking with someone whether they will fit with the goals of the program.

They must be willing to work and not blame others for their homelessness.

"I monitor the projects," Donaldson said. "If at the end of six months there is no progress, they get a kick in the pants."

Anyone interested in Homes of Second Chances can contact Donaldson at
The initiative is being watched by homeless advocates in the county.

"Deputy Donaldson is passionate about what he is doing," said Edi Erb, interim director of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

"A critical part to ending homelessness is engaging people who have been living on the streets a long time, many frustrated with the system and how they have been treated," she said. "Deputy Donaldson is talking with people who are homeless, listening and connecting people with solutions. And in the process, he is engaging the community."

Pete McDonald lives nearby and pulled into the front yard Thursday afternoon.

The house "had been an eyesore," he said. When he first noticed work being done, "I thought it was a crime scene, with the patrol car parked there. I stopped, and Deputy Donaldson explained the program to me and what he was trying to do."

He said neighbors are behind the project.

"This takes a problem away and puts somebody who needs a home in a home," he said. "It's a good idea."

Help us tell the story of your Hometown Hero

We're looking for everyday people who help others in ways big and small, motivated only by kindness and a desire to make our community a better place.

Send your nominee's name and a brief description of his or her selfless acts to Hometown Heroes, Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 191, Tampa, FL, 33601. Or go to, search: Hometown 
Heroes, to fill out an online form.

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

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