ST PETERSBURG — It’s the kind of jungle gym one might find in a well-landscaped suburban park. There’s a miniature faux rock-climbing wall, a tall covered slide and a tiny plastic stand advertising “produce” where children can pretend-sell their goods.
The playground equipment is the centerpiece of gratis renovations by a group of local professionals at a St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter near downtown. The project was part of Leadership St. Petersburg, a class held by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
The recently completed work includes a vegetable garden, an outdoor gathering area, renovations to the dining area and a sitting room for families that has a flat-screen TV and loads of toys.
“Most of these kids have never seen a playground as spectacular as the playground that’s over there,” said Michael Raposa, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul’s local chapter. “Some of these kids have never had a television to watch as large as the television they installed. ... There’s a room full of toys and books that they’ve never had access to play with that the class did for us. It’s incredible.”
Until earlier this year the shelter was for individuals only. Now it admits families with children who stay, on average, about 23 days, he said.
“The fact of the matter is that homelessness has been a huge issue forever,” Raposa said. “Just in the past year we decided that we needed to invest some resources and become a partner at the table because there is an alarming increase in the rate of homeless children in our county.”
So the facility made changes to accommodate the changing homeless population.
With the influx of younger residents, facility staffers thought it was time to create spaces that are more child-friendly.
St. Vincent de Paul was one of several nonprofit groups vying to receive help through Leadership St. Petersburg, and wound up being chosen. The organization initially asked for a playground, but program participants raised about $50,000 that also covered the additional amenities.
“The leadership class went way above and beyond that,” Raposa said. “They actually created a space where it’s a destination. Not only do the kids in-house love to be (there), but it’s also a place that they don’t want to leave. And that’s just a really cool thing for us.”
On one of the walls facing the jungle gym there’s a bold mural featuring butterflies and rainbows. Beyond a small swingset is a fenced garden with rows of edible plants that those staying at the facility help tend. The garden’s yield will help the facility feed the local homeless population, which is part of its mission.
It’s a far cry from what was there before.
“When we arrived on the scene, ... the children were playing under an overpass,” said Kristina Alspaw, a St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce employee who participated in the class. “They (didn’t) have access to toys, and their dining facilities were a little underserved.”
Alspaw is relatively new to the area and said she saw the class as a way to network and learn about the city. At the shelter, she got to work weeding the garden and the patio and organized a ribbon-cutting ceremony that took place this month. The project taught her a lot about homelessness in St. Petersburg, she said; how it often is handled through the criminal justice system rather than social avenues and how families with children make up a large portion of the homeless population.
“They actually have a place that they want to be,” Alspaw said of the renovated shelter. “It really, really changed my perspective.”