For Tampa's homeless, small cottages could give hope for a better future

The opening of Tampa Hope, an emergency homeless shelter of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 13, 2021. The opening of Tampa Hope, an emergency homeless shelter of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 13, 2021. | Courtesy of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg

A new housing complex of small cottages and tents aims to help several hundred homeless people in Tampa, in a project launched by Catholic Charities with help from the City of Tampa.

“Homeless folks are not anybody to be afraid of, they’re just people who fell on bad times,” Danielle Husband, senior director of programs at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, told CNA Dec. 15.  “They’re people. They come with all sorts of challenges but they come with all sorts of strengths. They all have their own story.”

“Some of the folks are brand-new homeless. Their jobs were cut, like in the service industry, and all of that stopped for such a long period of time,” she said.

Others come from out of state.

“A lot of people come to Florida thinking it will be better, and sometimes it’s not better,” Husband said.

On Dec. 13, Catholic Charities launched Tampa Hope community to help shelter the homeless in either tents or permanent structures called Hope Cottages. The project is located in an industrial, commercial area. It has a large lot with a building and some 50 platforms for tents and houses.

The project’s cottages aren’t truly “tiny homes” for permanent residence. Rather, they are transitional housing.

“The purpose of all of our shelters is to help the individual or the family end their episode of homelessness,” Husband said. “We are not the last place they are going to stay.”

Each Hope Cottage is an individual unit 64 square feet in area. Each cottage can house one or two people, with two folding beds, storage shelves, electric air conditioning and heating, power outlets, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and a fire extinguisher. The windows and doors are lockable.

The cottages are produced by the Washington state-based company Pallet, which helped adjust their designs for the needs of Florida’s climate. They are designed to avoid damage from rain or rot and are mold- and mildew-resistant. They have a category five wind rating, resistant to wind speeds up to 157 mph.

The cottages improve on a previous version. A local Knights of Columbus group had refurbished shipping containers to provide shelters of about 30 square feet, fit for for one person to live in.

This version showed some success, especially for those who work a night shift. They could sleep during the day in a place with less noise and heat, Husband said.  

They had a downside, however: they were expensive to maintain and required decking and air conditioning.

Residents will move into the Tampa Hope cottages beginning in February. Until then, beneficiaries will be housed in tents built on wood platforms. Temporary laundry facilities, restrooms and showers are available at the site until permanent facilities, including a kitchen, are built.

At least 25 people moved in to the community on Monday, and another 25 moved in on Tuesday.

“Not everybody is comfortable with a tent model. It’s unusual to some folks,” Husband said.

Others are not comfortable in cottages because of the small space and because they’ve gotten used to living outside. Tents themselves help residents make the change.

More in US

The new shelter differs from the bunk housing model offered by many other homeless shelters, which place people in large rooms with multiple beds.

“That’s not our model at all. Everybody goes to bed alone,” Husband said. “If they have a tough time with somebody at supper, they can just walk away and go to their own space.”

Individual housing helped avoid contagion during the Covid-19 epidemic at Catholic Charities’ local pop-up temporary shelter and another shelter in Pinellas County, Husband said. Case management sessions and therapy sessions also moved outside.

In addition to housing, Tampa Hope will provide food, clothing, transportation, employment and benefits assistance, basic medical care, and counseling for substance abuse and mental health. The St. Petersburg diocese’s Catholic Charities affiliate will provide support personnel and case managers for beneficiaries.

At full capacity, Tampa Hope can house up to 300 people.

“They could be you, me, a relative or friend,” Louis Ricardo, Director of Marketing and Donor Relations at the Catholic Charities affiliate, told CNA Dec. 13. “Many suffered some trauma that led to their episode of homelessness, including loss of jobs and a home or death of a loved one.”

“Many are hungry, sick, have been the victims of crimes, and haven't bathed in a long time. In sum, they have suffered a loss of the dignity that we are all accorded as children of God.”

(Story continues below)

Some have suffered chronic homelessness for six to ten years, Husband said.

“Two gentlemen needed to be in adjacent tents because one helps the other dress and remember to take his medicine,” she said. “Another sleeps with a hammer on the streets for fear of suffering crime.”

There are also “unhealthy relationships” where women seek to be with a man not for true desire but for safety and protection.

“There is a lot of trauma that’s befallen the folks that we’re serving. For a lot of them, just to see a mattress and to know that they can sleep a little easier tonight because nobody is going to hurt them, is just a huge relief,” Husband said.

The most recent Point-In-Time survey of local homeless indicated that 21% suffer from mental illness and 11% suffer from substance abuse, Ricardo said.

Wages in Florida are also a problem: they don’t keep pace with the cost of rent, and affordable housing is also hard to come by. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, a similar project for the homeless of Pinellas County saw residents stay about 90 to 120 days on average. The state of the housing supply now means a 150 to 180 day wait for those seeking homes.

On average, some 30% of homeless people across the U.S. are able to transition successfully into stable housing. A Pinellas County project called Pinellas Hope had a success rate exceeding that, about 40% to 50%. Husband expects similar outcomes at the Hope Cottages hybrid shelter.

“This is an unprecedented time we’re all working in right now. We just have to navigate it a bit differently,” she said. Some beneficiaries reunite with family members. Others decide to become roommates with others who have experienced homelessness and they rent a trailer, an apartment, or a house together.

Husband said that Catholic Charities and its employees are committed to helping people people improve their situation.

“We’re here to walk that walk with them,” Husband said.

The City of Tampa will help provide access to utilities for Tampa Hope. The City Council has approved $750,000 to support shelter operations and Tampa’s police department and its homeless liaison outreach will provide overnight security.

“We are grateful to the City of Tampa for their faith in our ability to serve the homeless of Tampa at Tampa Hope and help them rebuild their lives,” said Maggie Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities. She said the pandemic was a catalyst that made the shelter possible.

The project also drew praise from city officials.

“We are pleased to partner with Catholic Charities because of its’ expertise in providing shelter and supportive services to the homeless at its Pinellas Hope (Clearwater) shelter and the work they did to house the homeless during the peak of the COVID crisis here in Tampa,” Kayon Henderson, the City of Tampa’s Housing and Communications Development Manager, said Dec. 13.

Frank Creel, 59, moved into a tent at the Tampa Hope site on Dec. 13. Creel, a longtime resident of Tampa, has been homeless for about four months. He lost his home after a struggle with drug use. A tent of his own will help him “reinvent and recharge,” he said.

“Yeah it's a tent, but it’s my tent,” he told WUSF Public Media. “It’s my apartment. It's my home. It's my mansion.”

He said he wanted to return to his life situation a year ago. He aims to get help from the services at the site.

“If you're trying to do the right thing, then this is the place to come and get your start,” he said.

Mayor of Tampa Jane Castor said Tampa Hope will “improve and save lives.” The city’s development strategy includes improving access to housing, she said, adding, “I am so proud and grateful to be working with Catholic Charities on this compassionate and innovative program to help people along the path to self-sufficiency.”

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg runs several ministries, including Foundations of Life, Shelters of Hope, and Friends in Need.

Its ministries helped over 11,000 people in 2020. The agency provided more 135,000 meals, distributed more than 130,000 pounds of food in addition to clothing and emergency shelter. Its affordable housing work benefits the elderly, people with low incomes, farm worker families, those suffering disabilities and HIV/AIDS.