For Good: Volunteers convert shipping containers into sturdy housing for homeless

Enormous shipping containers, empty of cargo such as TVs, clothing and other household items made in Asia, leave the Port of Tampa bound for a manufacturing facility in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District.

There, just behind well-known local brewer, Three Daughters Brewing Company, crews from Greeno Painting Services and Coastal Alliance Group get to work.

By the end of the week the containers will no longer be recognizable as freight haulers.

Welders, electricians and carpenters cut out doors and windows, frame out the inside, add insulation and firewalls, heating and air conditioning. They lay vinyl plank flooring; wire LED lighting and anchor a built-in bed to the wall.

From a single 8-foot-by-20-foot container emerges temporary shelter for three homeless individuals.  

This ingenious idea can be credited to team of people led by Kevin Greeno of Greeno Painting, and Patrick Millirons and Jimmie Schmidt of Coastal Alliance.

Through their new nonprofit partnership, Housing of Hope, the two companies hope to fulfill a mission of building shipping container homes for those most in need, starting with the residents at Pinellas Hope.

“We feel excited and humbled to be part of this project,” says Greeno. “I think we are onto something here, there has been tremendous support for what we are trying to accomplish.”

Hope cottages

The refurbished shipping containers, dubbed “Hope Cottages” will serve as a temporary 90-day shelter for the homeless at one of Pinellas County’s largest shelters -- a 13-acre site that is owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.  

Pinellas Hope is tucked away out of sight behind an industrial section of town and at the end of a long road. The official address is in Clearwater.  

“Since 2007, we’ve offered temporary shelter to about 7,200 men and women,” says Mark Dufva, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, the organization that operates the program. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than a half-million people in the U.S. are homeless. 

Only adults, no children or families are living at Pinellas Hope, which has strict rules for residents. Residents must pass a background check. Everyone is assigned a caseworker. Chores are doled out daily. There are AA and NA meetings seven days a week.  

The average length of stay is 61 days; the maximum stay is 90 days. The goal is to get residents self-sufficient and independent, with jobs and permanent homes.

“This is not a place to flop; it’s not a hot and cot,” says Pam Long, director of homeless and veterans services for Catholic Charities and the onsite manager for Pinellas Hope. “This is a sober community, we do random breath and drug testing. Everyone here must meet expectations.”

In exchange, residents receive meals, medical and dental care, clothing, mental health services and adult education. But the living accommodations, while a big step up from living in a car, a park bench or out in the open, are still less than optimal.

A step up from tents 

Most residents at Pinellas Hope live in tents. There are about 300 on the property.

At a Knights of Columbus fundraiser for Pinellas Hope, Greeno, a member of the Knights of Columbus St. Raphael Council No. 10157, saw the tents for the first time.  

“We were doing a fundraiser at St. Raphael’s Church and we had a tent up on the stage,’ says Dufva. “Kevin asked me why we had tents; wasn’t there an alternative?”

The first visit to Pinellas Hope was a shock, Greeno recalls.

“It was like post-Armageddon, with tents and people everywhere,” says Greeno. “Tents are OK for camping on the weekend. They’re not made for people living month after month with the bugs and the rain and the Florida heat and wind. I knew that we as a country and a community could do better.” 

Greeno turned to his fellow Knights of Columbus council members to see what they could do as an organization to make a difference.  

“What happened is I put together a committee and we spent more than 2,000 hours over a nine-month period looking at alternatives -- everything from composite housing, plastic-injected housing and tiny houses to shipping containers,” says Greeno. “We kept coming back to shipping containers. They’re built to withstand a category 4 hurricane. We just could not build anything sturdier or more durable.”

The next step was to come up with a design. For that, Greeno turned to Millirons and Schmidt of Coastal Alliance Group.  

“We had a whole group of engineers and architects working on the concept and addressing all the issues of heating and cooling, and the best way to insulate,” says Schmidt. “It’s took us well over a year. When we came up with a prototype that was green and sustainable and they loved it.”

Changing lives

The first rehabbed container arrived at Pinellas Hope last December. Since then several more have arrived, creating a small but growing community of “cottages.” 

“My first response to people being homeless was that they were just lazy until I got involved in this project and went out and met them,” says Schmidt. “Almost always something bad has happened to these people that they are not able to recover from by themselves. It’s great to do our part to help them get their lives back on track. It’s not often you get to work on a project that is doing such good like this.”

Millirons is equally enthusiastic. “Our first mission is to address a need and that is to get people out of tents.”

A total of 50 containers -- temporary homes for 150 individuals -- are planned.

Pinellas Hope in partnership with the Knights of Columbus has launched a $1.25 million campaign to raise funds to pay for them. Through Housing of Hope, Greeno, Millirons and Schmidt will continue to supply them.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Greeno planned to take a refurbished container cottage to the Knights of Columbus state convention in Orlando. “We want to show officers in other chapters from all over Florida what can be done. We’re out to house as many people as we can in a safe, clean environment.”

Medical care for the homeless

Separate from Pinellas Hope's new shipping container cottages, other local and county organizations are doing their part to help those in need.  For example, medical care for homeless residents etc.

Medical care for the estimated 3,000 homeless residents in Pinellas County can be costly if it places all of the burden on hospital emergency departments or local fire rescue personnel.

Now, with the grand opening in April of Bayside Health Clinic, county officials hope to alleviate that problem. In April, the county cut the ribbon on a new 3,028-square-foot clinic that will provide medical, dental and behavioral health services to homeless adults.  

The clinic is located next door to Safe Harbor, an emergency homeless shelter and jail diversion program operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department since 2011. That shelter houses about 400 to 450 men and women every day in a dormitory style building. See a May 15, 2012 story in 83 Degrees about Safe Harbor’s art mural project

Safe Harbor residents will most likely be frequent users of the new Bayside Health Clinic. Previously the shelter was visited by the county’s mobile medical unit -- a clinic on wheels that has been providing primary medical care to the homeless for the past 23 years.  

The mobile unit visits shelters, soup kitchens, drop-in centers and other areas frequented by the homeless. It provides a much-needed, valuable service. But as Lourdes Benedict, Pinellas County’s Health and Human Services Director, points out, “It’s essential for us to have an actual bricks and mortar facility where people can come for ongoing care.”  

““Prevention is the best key to better public health for everyone,” says Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. “Bayside Health Clinic ushers in a new era of health care in Pinellas for a population that is often overlooked but needs to be treated with dignity. Our county is not a healthy place to live, work or play without taking care of all people.” The health department will provide onsite care at the new clinic.

All construction costs for the new clinic were paid for with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources Services Administration. Services are free to people without Medicaid, Medicare or other insurance.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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