After losing funding for its homeless family shelter that served domestic violence survivors, Hope Villages of America (HVA) has successfully transformed the facility into much-needed affordable housing.
Pinellas County-based nonprofit HVA announced its plans to convert Grace House, a shelter for homeless women and children in Clearwater, into housing for many of the same residents in July. The Juvenile Welfare Board decided to terminate its funding for the facility in Dec. 2020 due to “significant concerns regarding service delivery.” However, the organization still supports the Haven of HVA, which offers similar services.
Due to the lack of funding – and with a previously established strategy to provide more affordable housing options to an area desperately in need – HVA officials unanimously decided to refurbish 14 of the Grace House units and create the Oaks at Hope Villages.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Kirk Ray Smith, CEO of HVA. “I think the pros outweigh the cons because we know we’re preventing homelessness by providing affordable housing.”
The Oaks opened Oct. 1, and Smith said only one unit remains available. Another 11-unit HVA community, Goldsmith Gardens, is full, and the organization is working to acquire 20 more in Clearwater.
Multiple Grace House residents remained at the site and now live in the Oaks at Hope Villages, including Holly Johannes and her 17-year-old son. In addition to some remodeling, she said the atmosphere has also changed.
“I have noticed a sense of calm from the residents and kids now that everything has transitioned from the Grace House to the Oaks,” said Johannes. “I can finally breathe now, and I have no worries as to where I can call home.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be back on the streets or somewhere else.”
While the nonprofit offers several other services to Pinellas residents – and Smith hopes to soon expand throughout Tampa Bay – he said HVA takes pride in addressing area homelessness. According to Smith, 90% of families they help go on to find permanent housing.
He noted that domestic violence victims often stay with or return to their abusers as they cannot afford to live alone. Smith explained that HVA helps people at its shelters qualify for housing assistance and find a more permanent solution.
“And so, this was no different,” he said. “It’s just in this case – she could actually stay there. She doesn’t have to move.”
Housing vouchers, said Smith, allow residents to pay about 30% of their income towards rent, up to a certain amount. For example, he said, families could pay $330 per month for an apartment that would go for $1,700 on the open market.
In addition to thanking HVA’s officials, Johannes said she was also grateful for the case managers at Catholic Charities. She explained that her vouchers through the St. Petersburg Housing Authority ended earlier this year, but the local Catholic Charities affiliate ensured she remained in place.
Those case managers, added Johannes, want to support her success throughout the year and for the long term. While she endured many struggles while fighting to overcome homelessness, Johannes said the turmoil was also a “blessing in disguise.”
“I have built such great bonds with my case managers and other families that are currently living here at the Oaks,” she added. “I am so thankful for what we have received.”
The organization will continue striving to help reduce the number of people without a home by providing affordable options, Smith said. He relayed that HVA also provides wraparound services to the residents, including financial literacy training, workforce development and life skills.
Smith said the overall goal is to offer a self-contained source for everything a family needs to be successful. He expressed HVA’s intent to adding to more affordable units to its inventory in Pinellas and beyond, including through properties that may require some retrofitting.
“We know if we do that, then the need for shelters, although it may not go away, it would certainly be a lot less,” said Smith.
Johannes is on a one-year lease, but she is already looking to the future. She hopes to renew the agreement when it expires and remain in the place she and her son can now call home.
“I am wanting to be within this community and build deeper bonds with the staff and families,” Johannes said.