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Innovative development offers homeless a fresh start

Mark Parker

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Innovare provides 50 free and affordable units for those who have experienced homelessness or long-term financial hardships. Photos by Mark Parker.

A cavalcade of nonprofit and elected officials described a new housing development’s local and national significance Friday morning. Walter Sloan wants them to know they saved his life.

Sloan occupies one of 50 apartments at Innovare, a recently completed project in St. Petersburg that offered a return to normalcy. He and his new neighbors moved in with garbage bags containing everything they owned.

Sloan has a roof over his head for the first time in nearly two years, thanks to an extensive public-private partnership that believes people can transform their lives when provided an opportunity. “I’m eternally grateful,” he told the Catalyst before the ceremony.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities, Pinellas Hope and all the donors who support them,” Sloan added. “I wouldn’t be here, period.”

Volunteers of America Florida developed Innovare to help people overcome homelessness and other long-term struggles. The twin mid-rise towers at 850 5th Ave. S. in St. Petersburg’s Innovation District also hosts the faith-based nonprofit’s new state headquarters.

Thomas Goodwin, board chairman, noted that Innovare offers free and affordable housing amid “some of the most expensive real estate in downtown St. Petersburg.” Half the residents pay what they can afford, and the remaining units are for those earning less than 60% of the area median income.

Mike King, president of the national organization, said the local project inspired him to create something similar in Washington, D.C. He called Innovare a national model.

“We’re not trying to stick people off in a corner somewhere,” King said. “This is the way affordable housing ought to be in America. You have set the goal high.”

Janet Stringfellow, CEO of Florida’s Volunteers of America, spent nearly 20 minutes acknowledging the local partnerships that brought the innovative project to fruition. Pinellas County Commissioners provided $1 million to acquire the property.

St. Petersburg officials dedicated $3.43 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to support the $18 million development. The city’s housing authority provided 20 years’ worth of rent vouchers.

“I don’t believe there’s a city in the nation that has leadership so committed – walking the talk,” Stringfellow said. “And the level of trust that we know where we’re heading, even though there were all kinds of problems.”

From left: Mayor Ken Welch; Janet Stringfellow, CEO of Volunteers of America Florida; Walter Sloan, a formerly homeless Innovare resident; former Mayor Rick Kriseman; and a social worker with Pinellas Hope.

Most of Innovare’s residents came from Pinellas Hope, where they stayed in tents or shared cottages. Sloan called it an “extended camping trip.”

He also credited counselors at the Catholic Charities shelter for not allowing him to lose hope while waiting for Innovare to open. The project encountered myriad hurdles, which the pandemic then exacerbated.

Stakeholders broke ground on the development in November 2021. Stringfellow credited former Mayor Rick Kriseman and Mayor Ken Welch’s administration for believing in Volunteers of America’s vision.

Raymond James financed the development. An executive then donated groceries to stock refrigerators. Kane’s Furniture offered a substantial discount that ensured residents received furnished apartments.

“When they opened the door and saw a fully furnished apartment – that was magical,” Stringfellow said. “There was not a dry eye. Every single one of them jumped onto the sofa and mattress.”

Catholic Charities screens potential residents and pays for their first month’s rent. The fellow faith-based nonprofit also provides educational programming to prepare people for their new lease on life.

Stringfellow told Innovare’s residents that they are “born for greatness.” She also believes they will prove people the project’s naysayers wrong.

Welch credited local officials for putting partnerships over partisanship. “We’ve got something special in St. Pete and Pinellas County,” he added. “We’re not just having the faith – we’re doing the work.”

From front left: Congresswoman Kathy Castor, Mayor Ken Welch, and City Councilmember Copley Gerdes were among the speakers who expressed a desire to facilitate more projects like Innovare.

City Councilmember Copley Gerdes noted that local leaders have broken ground on or cut a ceremonial ribbon for over 400 affordable housing units in the past week. He said those efforts are what makes him proud to serve St. Petersburg.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor called Innovare “truly one of the most inspiring collaborations that I’ve ever witnessed.” Nearly every speaker expressed their desire to facilitate similar projects.

Sloan said the outpouring of support shows that people care about their homeless neighbors. “I hope this right here is only the beginning,” he said. “Look what it’s done for me. It’s changed my life.”

The expansive public-private partnership cuts a ceremonial ribbon for a development they believe can serve as a national model.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    April 26, 2024at6:10 pm

    Absolutely unbelievable and wonderful all at the same time. Now, some churches can give up some land for housing.

  2. Avatar

    John Donovan

    April 26, 2024at4:07 pm

    This looks very good. When city goes it alone they spend $400k per home, or more. Lesson: seed money / partnerships. Then get out of the way,

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