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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2017
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Adopt-a-Block changing lives in Pinellas’ at-risk neighborhoods

On their door-to-door campaign to make this struggling community a better place to live, volunteers in the Adopt-a-Block program met an elderly woman who had a minor electrical problem in her home.

It seemed nothing more than simple fix for one of the volunteers, who is an electrician, except that when he finished, “she started crying,” Adopt-a-Block Director Steve Cleveland said.

It turned out the faulty outlet was the one that powered the woman’s adjustable medical bed, and she had had no money to fix it. “She had been sleeping in a chair for five months because she couldn’t use her bed,” Cleveland said.

Since November, this is the sort of very real problems Adopt-A-Block volunteers have been finding and fixing every Saturday as they knock on doors in one of Pinellas County’s most desperate neighborhoods.

They have replaced a water heater for a family of eight that had been broken for six months. They installed a toilet in an elderly man’s home, painted a house, unclogged sinks, mowed lawns, replaced refrigerators, cleared and cleaned overgrown alleyways neglected for a decade or more, delivered groceries to hungry families.

Working with 40 to 50 volunteers and purely on donations, Adopt-a-Block has accomplished all of this at no cost to taxpayers. In fewer than six months, they have met and helped more than 600 people in 18 blocks of a 39-block target area they visit each Saturday.

“It’s great to hear it,” Cleveland said. “But it’s bad that people are suffering like this.”

Adopt-a-Block is the creation of the non-profit Florida DreamCenter, which was organized by Bill Losasso, pastor of Pathways Community Church in Seminole, and modeled after a program in Los Angeles that helped turn around high-crime and poverty neighborhoods, Cleveland said.

Recruiting volunteers through a coalition of faith-based groups called FOCUS – Family-Oriented Concept Unified to Serve – and others, the DreamCenter went in search of places in need. With direction from the county’s Juvenile Welfare Board, and based on a 2010 county economic poverty analysis, they discovered Lealman – a long-neglected spot between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park and one of the county’s five highest-risk communities when it comes to poverty, mental health issues, drug dealing, crime and housing.

Neil Brickfield, of the Pinellas Police Athletic League in Lealman, helped the volunteers find a place to start.

“They took some of toughest streets in Lealman, going door-to-door, and you can see the results,” he said. “People have gone from thinking nobody cares about to me to thinking somebody does care about me. They have been a godsend.”

Brickfield, a former county commissioner, works with the Police Athletic League to provide after-school care, academic help, sports activities and a place to gather for about 75 to 100 children a day at the PAL-Lealman Sport Complex, 3755 46th Ave. N. Education gets special attention, he said, considering 64 percent of third-graders there don’t read at grade level. “We check their grades all the time,” he said.

Additionally, he said a 2013 “hotspots” crime study by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office showed Lealman to be the most dense crime area in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. It also has among the highest foreclosures rates, school drop-out rates and teen pregnancy rates in the county, Brickfield said.

These problems are common among the four other areas on the county’s list – East Tarpon Springs, North and South Greenwood in Clearwater, South St. Petersburg, and nearby High Point, an unincorporated area like Lealman. “The difference is there are 15,000 people in High Point and 42,000 people in Lealman,” Brickfield said.

The Adopt-a-Block volunteers begin early each Saturday, fanning out in the streets and alleys in an area roughly between U.S. 19 (34th Street) and the railroad tracks, and 54th and 49th avenues.

“We knock on doors and ask what we can do to help make life a little easier,” Cleveland said. “We don’t offer to do things, we ask them what they need.”

On a recent Saturday, they cleared tons of trash and brush from alleys between homes. They routinely fill a 30-cubic-yard trash container with all sortsof debris. The container is donated and hauled away for free by the owner of County Sanitation. Keep Pinellas Beautiful donates trash bags.

Gradually, the volunteers have earned the trust of the residents, who now refer them to other people in need, and some have joined the effort, Cleveland said. The goal is to expand into more blocks and to involve more residents.

Cleveland said the key is being consistent: They never promise more than they can do, and they return every Saturday to do what they promised.

“They have become an extended family to us,” he said. “I know more people in the Lealman neighborhood than I know in my own neighborhood. I know most of them by first names.”

This past Saturday, they celebrated with a community block party at the PAL complex with bounce houses, games and food that drew about 600 people.

Ray Neri, president on the Lealman Community Association and a Juvenile Welfare Board board member, said what Adopt-a-Block has accomplished is “absolutely remarkable.”

Neri, 77, has lived in Lealman since 1952. He lives in a home built on one of the lots his grandfather bought for $2 each after the 1929 stock market crash. He attended Lealman Junior High and St. Petersburg High.

He said those in Lealman back then trapped otters in Joe’s Creek and had pine trees and cows and chickens. A train station on Main Street, now gone, would take eggs, turpentine and milk to Miami. Later, much of the land would turn into orange and grapefruit groves.

In 1955, Neri joined the Navy. When he returned he could hardly find his way home because of the new development.

But after decades of neglect, the tiny houses and other properties in the area fell into disrepair, and low-level drug dealing, street crime and prostitution are flourishing. Neri said his wife has suggested moving out, but he won’t go. “This is my community,” he said.

The commitment Adopt-a-Block has made to the area is helping people and getting them more involved, he said.

“You can’t get any more grassroots than what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re coming in every Saturday, until forever, until it’s done. In Lealman, that is forever.”

County Commissioner Charlie Justice said he spent a few hours with the group one day, and the work they do in homes and in yards “improves the quality of life dramatically.”

“These guys just show up to work,” he said. “They just want to help the neighbors. It makes you feel good about humanity.”

Justice said the county supports the group and offers whatever government safety services it can, but has had a limited role.

“We’re just trying to get out of their way, sort of thing,” he said. “I firmly believe this is one of those areas that if it can improve the quality of life it could have a ripple, it could affect other areas.”

Frank Bowman, community outreach and development manager for the county Planning Department, said Adopt-a-Block’s streamlined structure makes it efficient.

“They are doing things that would take government a long time to accomplish, if they are things we could do at all,” he said. “They are people who are totally motivated and committed to helping other people. It’s an attitude they’re able to convey when they go door-to-door.”

Bowman, who has worked with the community association for about seven years, goes out with the volunteers nearly every Saturday. Through repeated visits, he said, people begin to open up and express their needs. Together, they have been able to match people to government programs such as grants to modify homes for disabled people or low-interest loans to help homeowners make repairs.

With half of the population earning below 80 percent of the median income, the needs are great, he said. “We’ve been able to see a lot higher degree of need than we even knew was out there,” he said.

Bowman said the Lealman family settled the area in the late 1800s, but most of the housing was built after World War II as winter tourist cottages – a lot of 600- and 700-square-foot, wood-frames houses with asbestos-shingle siding.

Most are not worth the cost to renovate, and a large number are owned by absentee landlords who aren’t reinvesting in them, Bowman said. “And there is a huge number of old and deteriorating mobile home parks” from the 1950s, he said.

“Most of the area needs to be redeveloped – tearing down the old stuff and building new stuff, without doing major displacement of the people who live there,” he said.

Those sorts of efforts began about 10 years ago during the housing boom, when property in Lealman still was cheap. But it collapsed with the economic recession. Now, as the economy rebounds, there is hope again that investors and developers will help.

In the meantime, Bowman and others are thankful for the difference Adopt-a-Block has made to clean up the place and to help the people who live there. And the DreamCenter is looking for permanent office space in the area.

“It really does work well,” Bowman said. “I don’t know if it could be done any other way.”

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