Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Homeless trade sweat equity for a place to live

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this story appeared in Tribune community sections this week.

 The Tampa Tribune

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."

* * * * *
Last fall, after addressing the men's group at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, Donaldson was approached by Greg Gingeleski, who attended the meeting of the group that serves Saturday breakfast to homeless people, with a side order of scripture.

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."

* * * * *
The initiative has attracted assistance from others. 

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.

* * * * *
Gingeleski is pleased with the program that provides tenants who, as workers, also are assets to his company.

"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."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Later this month, Tampa will host the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney will accept his party's nomination and fifteen thousand credentialed media will swarm the city.

In this week's issue of Huffington, Saki Knafo spotlights a Tampa most of the media will not see during their stay. Hillsborough County, which surrounds Tampa, has 60 homeless people for every 10,000 residents -- more homeless per capita than any other American city or county. As a result, Tampa has become a kind of civic laboratory, with citizens, police, and government grappling with all the problems that accompany homelessness.

Saki Knafo introduces us to several of Tampa's homeless, as well as those who seek innovative solutions to their predicament. Among the latter is Steve Donaldson, a Hillsborough County Sherriff's Department deputy with a lifelong passion for problem solving (it began with a childhood fascination with Donald Trump and evolved into a respect for unconventional thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell). In his first decade with the department, Donaldson was repulsed by what he encountered out on the beat: the drug addicts and derelicts who seemed beyond help. But then, something changed in the way he saw Tampa's homeless, and in the way he went about his daily work. Since then, as Knafo puts it, Donaldson has been "on a mission to convince police and ordinary civilians alike that the answer to the homeless problem lies not in arrests and jail but in something far more subtle, the relationship between a single homeless person and a cop."

Since 2010, Donaldson has helped get more than 100 people off the streets -- including Albert Swiger, who with Donaldson's help traded a life of crime, and more than 200 arrests, for home ownership, a job and a girlfriend. Donaldson has done this by looking to both the public and private sectors. Many homeless people are unaware that they qualify for benefits, and part of Donaldson's relationship with his "clients," as he calls them, is making sure they understand what they're entitled to. He's also tapped his contacts in real estate, convincing property owners to let his clients work on abandoned homes in exchange for staying in them.

As the Republican convention approaches and all eyes turn to Tampa, Saki Knafo puts flesh and blood on the homelessness crisis, and gets an answer from Donaldson about what changed his perception of the homeless: it was the realization that he had "more in common with them than I would like to think."

Full story at the Huffington Post:

Full Color Magazine Story on Google Docs:

(Highlight Link Then Right Click Open In New Tab)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Noble Ministries partners with Help Cops Help Us team to fulfill collaborative mission

Tampa - Story by Brent Donaldson
More than ten years ago retired Deputy Jay Noble joined the ranks of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. It was during his tenure where he began his career like most, as a beat cop on the streets of Tampa responding often to the same complaints about the same people with the same problems. 

"It's a never ending cycle of distress that rarely seeks a resolution," says Noble.

More recently, Noble made a decisive move in the direction of personal fulfillment to answer his life's calling as he describes it. He retired from his decade of law enforcement to launch Noble Ministries with his ministry partner and wife "Ali" Noble.

Like Jay Noble his wife Ali comes from a regimented corporate-styled infrastructure where she gave up the trappings of a secure salary along with the allure of benefits. It was their shared passion and a mutual desire to fulfill a common mission that made her move from the corporate world easy. "Helping those in our community solve their problems so they may become self-reliant," Ali said, was a primary focus of their mission.  

While Jay Noble worked on the streets of north west Hillsborough County he was moved by the works of a fellow co-worker. It was the street engagement of Help Cops Help Us founder Steven Donaldson interacting with the homeless in their camps and on their own turf he thought was not only compelling but complimentary to his own mission. 

And soon enough while forming his own ministries' street engagement model, he reached out to Donaldson with an offer of mutual collaboration and assistance. "It's almost a natural order of events," Donaldson says. "Those that share a common goal tend to gravitate and work together for a greater benefit and result."

With combining the works of both secular and faith-based brands street engagement law enforcement specialists will be augmented by Noble Ministries' behind-the-scenes supportive services. The ministry has a particular interest with the Help Cops Help Us rehousing model where deed-holders donate the use of their vacant and sometimes ramshackled single-family cottage-sized homes. In exchange for living in the home selected homeless candidates work on renovations with the aid of private-sector donations.

"It's about building relationships with those we are trying to help," says Ali Noble. "We want to work one-on-one with them to help them solve their own problems."

"We're teaching people how to fish," Donaldson added. "Personally, I don't give anything away without getting something in return and that usually amounts to helping people retool their problem-solving skills to become more self-sufficient -- that's what works."  

Noble Ministries as an independent partner has an established 501(c)(3) non-profit designation and like many Help Cops Help Us partners they fulfill their mission through outreach with personal donations by the many that share their vision.

"Something as simple as a bus pass or work boots goes a long way," says Ali Noble. We work hand-in-glove with employment assistance and sometimes that means transportation to a job interview. She added, "Once we have past this hurdle often they need something like work accessories too and these donations are dedicated to our personal investments in people not corporate infrastructure."

It was explained as a profound example of mutually complimenting cooperatives between, public, private, and  faith-based partners to solve a communities' most lingering problems associated with personal distress and homelessness.

This was what Jay Noble had in mind on a certain faithful day when he turned in his formal resignation from law enforcement duty to his commanding officer. Jay explained, "I didn't expect everyone to understand my motivation leaving a job like the Sheriff's Office, but sometimes you have to accept the yearning that comes from free will and take the final leap of faith."

"I'm glad I did it," Jay said gleefully!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Like a good neighbor State Farm agent Pam Williams was there

Pam Williams (center) State Farm Insurance
Tampa - By Steven L Donaldson

Homeless recovery is about solving someone's problems. And, problem solving, in a time of limited resources and cut backs, is about being resourceful.

For those on the streets recovery is sometimes a dicey game of mental fitness and critical thinking skills. But, the most redeeming personal quality for those experiencing the hardship of individual consequence is simply asking for help.

That's what Michael DeMary did after an ill-conceived plan with relocating to Tampa landed him homeless and depending on the Salvation Army for his shelter.

Following a word-of-mouth referral we soon met up to talk about his situation and devise a plan to remedy his problem. It was during the initial assessment interview where DeMary sat in my front passenger seat and I started with the probing questions.

I never finished the interview.

For someone like DeMary his problem-solving answer didn't need the deep tissue rub it often takes to get to his kernel of truth -- the essence of every first encounter. After being homeless in Tampa for just over a month, DeMary's most direct route off the streets would be returning home to Rochester, New York where he has family and a support structure.

It's a simple answer with a more complicated follow-through although -- since homeless resources don't cover tickets home for any mode of transportation, we have to be more creative.

DeMary gives a thumbs-up at Tampa International
Pamela Williams has been my State Farm insurance agent for more than fifteen years and my next likely sponsor sharing with her the opportunity to help a neighbor in need. I met up with Williams at her Town N' Country office and delivered my best homeless recovery pitch which met with a head nod and an affirming grin.

"I'd be more than happy to help out," Williams said.

Soon enough her husband and fellow business partner, John Williams, jumps on a travel search engine and DeMary is one TSA pat-down away from returning home to family on a US Airways flight leaving  6:00 am the following morning.

There is little time to waste and I hunt DeMary down at a homeless shelter check-in they call "The Shop" and greet him with the good news. Michael's response after hearing his flight would be leaving in less than twelve hours:

"Take me to the airport now, I'll sleep there overnight -- I'm not going to miss that plane!"

And with another homeless soul off the streets of Hillsborough County a big Thanks goes out to Pam Williams -- my Town N' Country State Farm insurance agent.

Thanks Pam and John for being good neighbors and for being there for those in need.

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

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Two years later homelessness becomes a distant memory

 Tampa - By Steven L Donaldson

For over ten years Christopher Wall learned to survive on the streets as a homeless man. He learned where to huddle at night -- camouflaged from the camp raiders that would invade and pillage. He learned how to posture himself in his wheel chair -- all in the hopes a fleeting passerby would toss a few shekels his way. And, he also learned how to hide from the police when he could.

He was good at it too.
During the last few years of his homeless journey he called a convenience store dumpster-corral his home. A narrow easement nuzzled between the corral and a perimeter fence-line obscured his slumbering shelter from prying eyes while affording him a sense of security.

At the end of his day he maneuvered his wheel chair flush against the cardboard liner that matted down the weeds and insulated him from the dampened earth. Each time it became a tactical exercise that came across as a sloppy transfer of motion from sitting to resting -- it rarely ended without a thump. It would be his bed for the evening and his place for solace and refuge. 

The next day it would start all over again.    

But, survival on the streets as a minimalist always leads, even for the most prolific of homeless, to the very last rung of the ladder. You're one slip away from a downward spiral into the relentless pursuit of a zero sum game where there is never a winner -- just marginal survivors.

For much of these last few years as a homeless man bound to a wheelchair his lukewarm existence could only be defined by the perpetual motion of trifle loitering. And, it was this same loitering that one day would lead him in a direction that he could have never been prepared for.

The long arm of the law is now more than just an expression of enforcement and compliance -- it is also the beacon for homeless recovery and rehabilitation should you find yourself aimlessly homeless on the streets of Hillsborough County.

It was a faithful trespassing complaint from a Town N' Country business that first led to my encounter with Wall -- the six-foot-six frame of his former self reduced to the shrunken and disheveled imagery of a homeless persona. Tattered and unkempt would only begin to describe his overgrown appearance.

But, for Wall where his body became listless his soul remained animated. He always maintained his spirits -- and, if not for this sometimes deceptively simple survival skill it's hard to say where Wall may have ended up today.

Since this time Wall has successfully remained off the streets living in a group home environment where he praises the blessing of three squares a day. With the companion of a walking cane Wall now leaves his wheel chair beyond arms reach -- sometimes for remembrance and other times for trips to the nearby convenience store.

His body and mind has since repaired to catch up with his congenial soul.

On occasion Wall will use the house phone to leave a message for me at the district office just to say hello and stay in touch. After two years of pink messages they are usually dictated in much the same way:

 " I called just to say Hi  -- and things are going well, you don't have to call back -- I just wanted you to know I'm still off the streets ...Chris."

Early on many dissenters bemoaned the conventional wisdom: "...the homeless don't want help to get off the street."

When the homeless gleefully accepted the help these same dissenters repurposed their angle of attack: "Yeah, their off the streets -- but for how long?"

Now, more than two years later, Christopher Wall and many former homeless men and women in Hillsborough County have proved what was once conventional wisdom may have been more an old wives' tale.

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