In 2021, Linda Ealy became homeless. A physical disability kept her from working and she could not afford an apartment on her own after the loved one with whom she lived died.
Then, in early January 2022, Ealy went to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa for an outreach event to connect people living in homelessness with services and organizations to help them. There, she met Cynthia Jones-Northington, the director of Tampa Hope, the homeless shelter and help center Catholic Charities, Diocese of St. Petersburg had just opened in an industrial area of East Tampa. Soon, Ealy had moved into a tent at Tampa Hope. She lived there for 11 months before transitioning to permanent housing in December 2022.
“Before she pulled me in here, I was sleeping in my car, staying at different friends’ houses,” Ealy says of her life situation before meeting Jones-Northington. “One of my best friends, I stayed with her for about two weeks. Then I stayed with my sister for two or three days.”
Ealy credits the staff, volunteers and resources at Tampa Hope with getting her back into a place of her own. Still, living in a tent was at times a hard existence.
“I toughed it out,” Ealy recalls. “There were a lot of nights I wanted to leave. I had to weather the cold, the heat, the rain.”
During Hurricane Ian, everyone staying at Tampa Hope had to evacuate to an emergency shelter, she remembers.
Now, Catholic Charities, the City of Tampa and other partner organizations behind have seen their long-held plan to improve and expand the housing stock at Tampa Hope come to fruition with the arrival of 100 tiny cottages.
“It has been a long time coming,” Catholic Charities Executive Director Maggie Rogers says during an April 20th event unveiling the cottages. “For many years, Catholic Charities has wanted to do a project like this."
Each of the white, 64-square-foot “Hope Cottages” has air conditioning and heat, a bed, storage space, power outlets, windows and a smoke detector. They are designed and constructed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. During the April 20th event, the cottages are lined up in rows in the background as Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and other officials give remarks.
Castor recalls talking to officials in Washington D.C. a few years back about homeless centers around the country that could serve as a model for Tampa. She says they pointed to two, one in San Antonio and one just across Tampa Bay, Catholic Charities' Pinellas Hope.
That started a public-private partnership between the city and the charity arm of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The city put $750,000 toward the Hope Cottages project. The Tampa Police Department's homeless liaison officers also refer people living in homelessness to Tampa Hope for food, a place to stay and wrap-around services like mental health and substance abuse counseling and assistance finding job opportunities.
“It’s not just a one-off conversation,” Castor says of those outreach efforts. “Research has shown it takes three to five touches to get an individual to agree to come into a program. And it’s not always successful the first time. And that’s okay, as long as we continue to work to get individuals off of the street.”
In their remarks, Castor and Parkes say it's the mission of Tampa Hope to provide not just shelter and food, but self-esteem and dignity.
“Having toured the main building and seeing what has happened on site, it’s just incredible the amount of work that has been done and the amount of lives that have been touched here,” Parkes says. “It’s not just about the transformation of a piece of property; it’s about transforming lives in our community. People, individuals, human beings should never be viewed as a problem. We don’t view them as problems. We see them and we see opportunities - not to give them a handout, but to give them a hand up - and thus to give them dignity and to give them hope for the future.”
Rogers says that, since opening in late 2021, Tampa Hope has temporarily housed more than 600 people. More than 200 of them have moved into permanent housing. She expects that rate will increase over time to the 45 percent that “sister project” Pinellas Hope transitions into permanent housing. Right now, she says there are 50 people staying at Tampa Hope who qualify for housing and waiting for units to open up.
Carl Walker is one of the people who got back on his feet at Tampa Hope and back into permanent housing. Speaking at the April 20th event, Walker says after health problems and a 50-foot fall at work, he lost his business and his home.
“If it wasn’t for this program I can seriously say I don’t know where I would be at today…I may still be out there laying in the street not knowing where a roof over my head would come from,” he says.
Rogers says Tampa Hope is currently at capacity, with 125 people sleeping there every night in the tents on-site. The addition of the cottages will increase that capacity to 225. She says the development plans for the property include 100 more cottages to increase the capacity to 325.
There are also plans to construct a new main building with showers, restrooms, a kitchen with full cooking capacity, a dining room, a laundry room and offices. Right now, the bathrooms and showers are in portable buildings.
Rogers says the progress to date and the future growth are possible because of partners like the City of Tampa, volunteers like those from Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Matthew 25 ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Tampa and donors.
For more information, go to Tampa Hope.