EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this story appeared in Tribune community sections this week.
The Tampa Tribune
Published: August 30, 2012
Russ Lester III, who lived on the streets of Town 'N Country for two and a half years, is back on his feet, employed, paying rent, "doing OK."
Solving the homeless problem is simple, Lester says only half-jokingly: Get the homeless into homes.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Steven Donaldson, who found Lester a home, might not agree it's so simple.
Donaldson heads the department's homeless initiative launched in Town 'N Country in June 2010. The inventive, multifaceted program combines the veteran deputy's street smarts and community contacts with help from enterprising landlords, corporate grants and faith-based groups.
Albert Swiger, 45, the initiative's first client, is its poster child, said Donaldson. "When I met Albert two years ago he was flying a sign at the corner of Veterans Expressway and Hillsborough Avenue," asking for money.
A former commercial fisherman and construction worker, Swiger said he was homeless for five or more years, often living in a tent in the woods. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he got an apartment, with federal money paying his rent.
"At the end of the year he was back on the street and back in my lap because the grant ran out," Donaldson said. "There were no relearned skills; he basically received an entitlement with the 2009 stimulus package."
Gingeleski, 40, owns four Old Memorial Highway rental homes, small-frame structures left in dilapidated condition by evicted tenants. Before meeting Donaldson, "I was at the point of demolishing the homes," he said.
The pair devised a plan allowing handpicked homeless people to live in the houses rent-free while making repairs. More than 80 percent of the homeless have construction skills, Donaldson has learned.
"That's basically what the exchange is. They have to have skin in the game; they can't get something for nothing," he said. "Everybody's a winner, if you think about it."
The homeless person gets a place to live; the owner gains improvements to a now-livable structure occupied by a paying tenant. Blight is eliminated.
The rent-free period lasts for as much as a year and provides time for the occupant to become self-sufficient. "They are accountable to me, and I follow up," said Donaldson, a de facto landlord who oversees renovations. "It takes a helping hand, and it takes a heavy hand, sometimes."
Noble Ministries in Land O' Lakes stepped up to provide support services, including homeowner recruitment and grant application assistance. The ministry is headed by Ali Noble and her husband, Jay, a former deputy who once worked with Donaldson.
The Home Depot provided a $5,000 grant, with another $700 from a vendor, Glidden Paint. Team Depot, the Atlanta-based company's volunteer arm of employees, scheduled a workday, providing tools and labor for what became Swiger's residence.
After clearing the house of vermin and mounds of trash, Swiger moved in. Two months later he was paying rent, earnings from the handyman business he started and income from his full-time job with Gingeleski's Great Danes Landscaping.
Lester learned of the program through Swiger and is now his neighbor. He, too, works for the property owner's company, maintaining and repairing landscaping equipment and also doing side jobs.
Swiger and Lester both cite drugs as a major contributor to their downfalls.
"I'm doing OK," Lester, a former ironworker, said as he sat on his screened front porch with his recently acquired 6-month-old mixed-breed dog, Althea. The 57-year-old earns enough to pay for his $550 rent, plus electricity, telephone and cable TV. He is making payments on his 1992 Chevy pickup.
"I'm trying to develop these gentlemen into leaders of the community, eventually," he said. "I'm not going to give anybody a handout that doesn't help themselves. These gentlemen want to help themselves, and that's the biggest thing. You help yourself, I'll help you."
Swiger turned to burglary and other property crimes to fuel his drug habit, resulting in felony arrests that rendered him virtually unemployable. A January 2009 drug conviction led to him kicking his pain-pill addiction, he said. He looks forward to when he can answer "no" to an important job application question: "Have you had a felony conviction in the last five years?"
"People still judge me according to my past, but it's not who I am today," Swiger said. "Today I'm a different person."