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Metropolitan Ministries to add 50 apartments

TAMPA - For about a week last summer, Dennis Hebert and his family lived in their tiny Geo Metro car after being evicted from a Carrollwood mobile home park. Hebert lost his job at a Winn-Dixie grocery story, which sent the family's finances into a downward spiral, with him, his wife, Zayda, and their 5-year-old son sleeping in the family's car. It was a low point in the Heberts' lives. "We didn't feel like we were fit parents at the time," said Dennis Hebert, 26.
Since the housing market collapsed five years ago, thousands of families have found themselves in situations like the Heberts': homeless, helpless, barely scraping by. Many have turned to Metropolitan Ministries, which has provided temporary shelter, food and even child care to families at the end of their ropes. The need for shelter has grown faster than the Tampa nonprofit group can provide it at its North Florida Avenue headquarters. But that is about to change. Later this month, Metropolitan Ministries will begin building 50 new apartments next to its Tampa Heights center. The $13 million project will give the charity room to house 300 people, doubling its current capacity in an effort to meet demand. The Tampa area, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The region is third behind New York and Los Angeles in numbers of homeless residents. About half those homeless people are new to their situation. Many are families with small children — the slice of society Metropolitan Ministries is dedicated to keeping off the streets. The charity's shelter hosts hundreds of residents and has more people on its waiting list. The Tampa City Council will vote today on a $500,000 loan, drawn from federal housing funds, to help finance the expansion. The new building is intended to improve on the current center, which started as a Salvation Army homeless shelter for single men in 1986. As a result, the rooms are cramped for families who might have up to five members, said Metropolitan Ministries spokesman David Bledsoe. Dennis and Zayda Hebert have lived in a dorm-like room packed with all their possessions since October. Their son, Dennis, lives with them, having claimed the top bunk in one of the room's two sets of bunk beds. "It can be tough, but I feel blessed to have a roof over our heads, because we'd have lost our son and still been in the Geo Metro," Dennis Hebert said. During their time at Metropolitan Ministries, both parents have worked on business courses. Zayda has finished a program in medical office management and is looking for work. Dennis recently landed a sales job with Coca-Cola, which will enable his family to move out of the shelter and into their own apartment. They'll continue to get help with rent during the next two years while they get their finances back on track. Metropolitan Ministries officials see the new building as a way to move more people into productive lives. The expansion will include more room for day care, counseling and dining. It also will include modernizing the existing residence hall, said Metropolitan Ministries' President Tim Marks. The group has raised about $8 million in private donations and pledges. It will borrow the rest to finish the project, Marks said. While the new housing will benefit Tampa's homeless families, it also creates a challenge for Metropolitan Ministries: The charity will lose the parking lot where it holds its end-of-year holiday market. So Metropolitan Ministries will partner with the city again, shifting the event to city-owned land near the Hillsborough River and Palm Avenue, Bledsoe said.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7871 Twitter: kevinw_trib

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