ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – First, Jami Speegle laid down the pillows. Then, the soft blue blanket. Finally, a weighted comforter to hold the makeshift mattress in place.
The seats of her green SUV had been pushed forward as far as they could go. The rest of her belongings — a small bag of clothes, some bathroom supplies, paperwork and medications — she piled on top.
Sleep, these days, was hardly sleep. It was more like wishful meditation. Just as she was slipping away, she’d be pulled back to the corner of the parking lot she’d been staying in since she became homeless at the beginning of January.
Sometimes it was her husband coming back from the night shift at 3 a.m. that shook her awake, twisting his body like a contortionist to try to fit into the car — two grown-ups separated by a midsized dog.
Sometimes it was the heat of their three bodies pressed against each other. Or the pain shooting up her spine.
A few nights earlier, it was the police that woke her. The officer didn’t give her any trouble, just ran her plates and asked if she was OK.
Her answer should have gone without saying, Jami thought. She was a 43-year-old disabled woman living out of her car, the handicap tag dangling from the mirror. She hadn’t showered in days.
Still, she didn’t want to risk having to move the car. She smiled and told the officer she’d be fine.
Not long before, Jami had a bed and a kitchen and neighbors who checked in. She had porch furniture and houseplants. She had a community, and what felt like stability until it melted away over a single night in September.
Now, she had mosquitoes biting at her flesh.
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER
The peach-colored building sat on the corner of Second Avenue N and Third Street in downtown St. Petersburg for just over 100 years. It was three stories high, with 18 apartment units, and a big, open porch that lined the front of each floor.
There was a park across the street, with towering trees, and just two blocks down was the city’s bustling waterfront, with its fancy restaurants and tourists hopping between crowded bars.
It wasn’t the location that drew Jami to the building in the fall of 2020, as much as it was the wheelchair ramp outside of the unit on the first floor.
She was in her early 30s the first time her back blew out, sending her to the operating room in a partial paralysis almost a decade ago.
The diagnosis was severe degenerative disc disease, and although she wasn’t in a wheelchair, yet, that day crept closer. For now, as she underwent surgery after surgery to support the collapsing bones of her spine, she needed an apartment that was accessible — and within her limited budget.
Rent for the newly renovated, deluxe studio was $1,100, the most expensive in the aging building, where some tenants paid $600.
Jami’s income on disability was fixed at $1,200 a month. Her husband, Shane, 50, worked long hours in construction.
It was tight, but they could make it work. They didn’t have much choice.
Jami and Shane were new to town, so they hadn’t seen the changes recent years had wrought on the city. Older buildings like this one were slowly disappearing, replaced by luxury apartments with pools and common rooms with marble counters, where a one-bedroom would go for nearly four times what some residents here, at the Stanton Apartments, were paying.
It was one of the last affordable housing complexes downtown — not by any legal definition, but in the sense that it was home to people just trying to get by.
There were waiters and line cooks, handymen and cleaning ladies. There were misfits and social rejects. People who drank a lot — sometimes too much. There were people with health problems, and elderly folks living off of Social Security. There were dreamers like Jami, with bigger plans on standby.
It didn’t take long for Jami to learn the rhythm of the building — which neighbors you could say “hi” to in passing, and which would lead you down a rabbit hole of conversation. She came to know their stories: Rick, the chatty blind man whose wife was bed-bound with cancer. Tammy, the young blonde prone to migraines whose teenage daughter wrapped her in hugs. Chip, who worked in hospitality and, catching his second wind after a few hard decades, bought himself a new mattress.
And in the unit above Jami’s was Todd.
Toddrick Washington’s section of the porch was a botanical garden, with snake plants and hanging pothos, and a tidy collection of bonsai trees. A fountain flashed lights that changed color to the beat of his music.
“I’m the garden man,” he said, sitting on a bench stacked with pillows. One read, “It’s so good to be home.”
Todd and Marcia Newton — his high school sweetheart — had found the place through a friend, Michael Nesmith.
Michael, on the third floor, lived by himself. But he was rarely alone.
The two men hit it off while working the kitchen at Cassis, a brasserie downtown. Todd had since changed restaurants, but Michael stayed on as a sous chef and collected stories of the famous people he’d fed.
Angela Bassett. Queen Latifah. Mariah Carey.
“She ordered all fried foods, mhmmm, she did,” he said.
Michael was a bigger guy, like a teddy bear, who wore a white T-shirt like a uniform. Todd was smaller, spunky. He wore Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Kiss and Journey shirts paired with his footwear of choice: foam clogs. “Comfy as hell,” he shrugged.
Both were Black men, in their 50s, who had moved to St. Petersburg from counties south of Pinellas for fresh starts. Both worked in the service industry and thought of it as a calling.
They watched Monday Night Football, occasionally betting a four-pack. They loved night fishing and sitcoms, especially Young Sheldon, and there wasn’t a night that went by when they didn’t gather on the porch outside of Michael’s apartment.
They were family, they agreed.
“My kids call him Uncle Mike,” Todd said. “That’s what it’s like.”
When Jami moved in, Todd extended her the same warmth.
When she needed help, he was there, especially when Shane was gone for work. When Todd needed a car he leaned on Jami and Shane for a ride.
How lucky, Jami thought, that such difficult circumstances had landed her here.
To: J. Speegle and all others in possession.
NOTICE OF TERMINATION OF MONTH-TO-MONTH TENANCY
You hereby are notified that pursuant to Section 83.57 Florida Statutes your month-to-month tenancy for rent and use of the premises located at 211 3rd St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, Pinellas County is being terminated and you are required to vacate the premises and surrender to your landlord on October 31, 2021.
This notice is being served upon you not less than 15 days prior to the end of the applicable rental period as required by law.
There’s a fine line between stability and instability. More than half of the U.S. population lives paycheck to paycheck, many surveys have shown, with little in the bank for when disaster strikes.
A slight change can send them free-falling.
In 2021, Tampa Bay experienced the highest rent increase of any metro in the nation, at 24 percent.
That far outshot the previous regional high point of the last two decades, when rent went up by 6.2 percent in 2015.
The owners of the Stanton did not return requests for comment during the reporting of this story, but in a previous interview, a spokesperson for the company, TJM Properties, said that the building had reached “the end of its useful life” and was being sold for demolition. The spokesperson said the company had contacted nonprofits to “help relocate tenants as best as possible.”
The city’s growth has attracted a wave of workers, said Jason Matthis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to urban redevelopment. As young professionals leave larger metro areas to work remotely in Tampa Bay, even our rising prices comparatively seem like “a good deal.” And for certain businesses, he said, it is a good deal.
But for the people who were already here, increases in cost of living coupled with stagnant wages have pushed those who once had padding closer and closer to the edge.
Homelessness today looks a lot different than it did five years ago, said Alexia Morrison, president of Reach St. Pete, a nonprofit that works with people struggling to afford housing.
It’s single people and families whose jobs pay little. It’s people who, for the first time, can’t make rent. It’s motels, Airbnbs, a roof “just barely” over one’s head.
Rent hikes are especially precarious for month-to-month tenants, who are often lower-income, said Tom DiFiore, an attorney for Bay Area Legal Services. The nonprofit firm provides free legal help to people facing evictions.
In Florida, landlords can terminate a month-to-month lease with just 15 days’ notice.
“And right now,” DiFiore said, “there’s nowhere to go.”
Losing housing can grind down mental and physical health and make it harder to hold down a job, said Emily Lemmerman, a researcher with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. As “the scarlet E” looms, the threat of suicide rises.
Black renters face evictions at a higher rate, she said, further entrenching racial disparities in health and well-being.
Even if an eviction filing isn’t carried out, it can stain a renter’s reputation, scarring credit and rental history, putting future loans and homes further out of reach.
“Eviction is a cause, not just a symptom, of poverty in America,” Lemmerman said.
OCT. 4: MISSION CONTROL
“They’re hack jobs, I’ll sue them,” shouted an older man with reflective sunglasses and a ponytail. “They need to be investigated. Pathetic. The owner’s not even showing his face.”
“Nah, man. That’s not going to do anything,” Todd said, shaking his head.
He was leaning back on the third-floor porch. Michael sat close by.
“It’s business,” Todd said. “We need to focus on just trying to get a little more time.”
It was the first week of October, and the porch outside Michael’s place had transformed into a sort of Mission Control, as residents gathered, trying to figure out where they would go in the event they were forced from their homes.
Some were in shock. The reality that a slip of paper, taped on each door overnight, could bring it all to a crashing end was too difficult to comprehend.
And for what? So a developer could tear down the building and put up a fancy hotel?
Other residents were defiant, anger spewing from their sweat glands. Why had no one warned them?
Todd was cool, collected.
“It’s reality, that’s what it is,” Todd said. “This is downtown St. Pete. They want to beautify the area. Personally, I get it. We just need the chance to get out of here.”
Michael stared blankly. He had no car, no partner like Todd or Jami, no additional income. This porch was the ecosystem that sustained him.
Still, he nodded along to Todd’s words.
Downstairs, Jami and Shane were bringing home groceries. She was scheduled to go into surgery the next morning, to get metal rods inserted in her back.
Compared to many, Jami and Shane hadn’t lived there long. They had stumbled into St. Petersburg by accident, wanderers who were driving cross-country toward the Virgin Islands. They envisioned starting an animal sanctuary there — only to have Jami’s spine collapse, again. The peach building was the permanent housing they had needed to get her into an operating room.
Jami’s back troubles had foreclosed her plans of working as a vet tech, but animals had remained her love. She held on to hopes of that sanctuary, hopes of studying the ways animals could help people who had been incarcerated. But as she sat on the porch that fall afternoon, her singsongy voice cracked with exhaustion.
“It’s physically impossible for me to move right now,” she said through tears.
If surgery went wrong, she could wake up paralyzed, she thought. By the end of the month, she could be without a home.
OCT. 13: STAND UP, FIGHT BACK
“When working people are under attack, what do we do?”
Stand up, fight back.
The small crowd of protesters gathered near the corner of the building, holding signs: “Evictions are violence.” “Gentrification ruins lives.”
It had been two weeks since the notice appeared, and it was two weeks until residents had to move. They had been given a flimsy list of resources, including a link for PinellasHomeless.org. Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Tenants Union and local nonprofits had gone door to door offering help.
In the warm glow of early evening light, some residents joined the protesters, taking turns with the bullhorn.
Inside, Jami lay in bed, breathing heavily. The incision down her back glowed a fleshy red.
“Are you ready to medicate?” Shane asked, passing her a small cup of pills.
She had been discharged from the hospital that morning, with strict orders to stay in bed.
“I really can’t with all of this right now,” she said, slowly waving an arm, as chants continued outside her door.
She closed her eyes and inhaled, moaning as she adjusted her head on the pillow.
It was the frustration that was eating at her spirit the most. The knowledge that she had tried, she’d really tried, to make the most of the cards she’d been dealt.
“We’re not going anywhere, not yet,” Shane told her. “They’ll have to drag you out.”
“Ha,” Jami said.
Then she fell asleep.
Outside, while Todd spoke to television reporters, Michael sat on the stoop, taking the scene in.
“I want to talk so bad, but I know if I go out there, I’m going to start crying,” Michael said, tears already forming. The young protesters moved him. They were going to help, he believed.
Michael had called his boss and asked for time off so he could try to find a new apartment. It was the first time he’d taken “vacation” in nearly 10 years.
Over the last week, he’d called more than 20 places, but almost all of them were taken.
One of the apartments had an opening, so he took the bus. By the time he got there, it had been claimed.
“I just don’t know how you do this to good people,” he said. “Almost seven years I’ve been here, and now you’re going to put me out on the street.”
Now the tears were falling.
“I understand business is business, but they don’t have no sympathy for lower-class people. These are the people working at your restaurants. Working at your factories. Businesses are making money off of these people, but there’s no consideration for them.”
By the beginning of November, the porch looked like a furniture graveyard.
Most of the residents had left. They packed bags of clothes and caught buses out of town. A few had walked across the street to Williams Park and begun sleeping on the grass.
“Nobody wants to take an eviction,” Todd said.
It was quiet. Eerie, but calm — absent of the panic and worry and chaos that had become ever-present.
Todd and Michael sat side by side, Bud Lights in hand, reminiscing about the good times, as if it were the last day of school. For the first time in 30 days, they didn’t mention what was to come.
Instead, they talked about days spent watching fireworks from the porch. Or grilling after work. They laughed about the time they saw a standoff between a coyote and a pedestrian right there on Third Street, and about how they sat out in their rain gear at 2 a.m. as Tropical Storm Eta rolled in, their backs pressed against the building, as they marveled at the rain.
“The things we’ve seen from this porch, you wouldn’t believe them,” Todd said.
“Oh, yeah, I enjoyed those days,” Michael said.
As the sun began to set, Michael moved the rest of his furniture out to the porch.
Todd and Marcia were two of the lucky ones. The couple had found an apartment, one with a swimming pool and a gym, at the southernmost tip of the county. Marcia is able to work from home, and their combined incomes made the rent doable.
Michael had struggled to lock anything down. He was planning to crash on a friend’s couch, maybe borrow from family to pay the deposit when he found a place.
Now, he was determined to control the one thing he could — his outlook.
“I’m not going to let this kill me,” Michael said. “I’m going to keep my head up, keep going to work, stay positive. … That’s all I can do.”
Jami and Shane were the last to go. They stayed as long as they could.
While she healed, she’d spent nearly every hour she hadn’t been asleep hunting for a new place.
Her need for a handicap-accessible unit made the challenge of skyrocketing rents even tougher. Moreover, Shane had a felony on his record from earlier years when he’d struggled with a substance use disorder, disqualifying them from certain complexes.
Still, by the time the legal note arrived at the door in mid-November, informing them they were being evicted, Jami had a plan.
A city housing coordinator had helped her get a place in north St. Petersburg, just off of 50th Street. She signed a lease sight unseen. It would be ready by the first of the new year, she was told.
With the help of a grant, Jami had just enough to pay for motel stays and a deposit until their move-in date.
Then, the day before Christmas, she was hit with more unexpected news.
Their new unit wouldn’t be ready until the middle of February.
On the last morning they could afford the motel room, Jami sat outside on a stool, taking small puffs from a cigarette while Shane put their belongings into the car. Steam rose from two small styrofoam cups of coffee.
“I’m completely out of money,” Jami said, throwing her hands up. “I’ve exhausted all resources. I can’t spend any of the grant that I got because I need it to cover the deposit at the new place.”
As she finished off the smoke, she let out a soft laugh; the kind you let out when you’d rather not cry, when you’ve chosen to find amusement in just how bad things can get, because you have no other choice.
She was 90 days post-surgery, and about to be sleeping in her car. Not quite what her doctor had meant by “stable housing,” she thought. But this was the bottom, it couldn’t get worse, and that ironically came with its own kind of relief.
An hour before checkout, Jami went inside to take a shower. It would be the last one for a while, she thought, as the bathroom filled with steam.
CASUALTIES OF CHANGE
Jami had not yet told her daughter, who was at college in Montana, that she was homeless. Didn’t want to worry her. By mid-January, she had taken to parking outside of Starbucks in the afternoons.
She’d sit with the cafe Wi-Fi for a few hours, taking care of bills, researching physical therapy options and reading the news.
The affordable housing shortage had been making headlines, especially with the election of St. Petersburg’s newest mayor, who had named housing as a priority in his inauguration speech.
It was nice, Jami thought, that politicians were paying attention. But lip service wasn’t helpful to the people who had already been made casualties of the changing city.
As Jami scoured the internet for local gyms that offered free trials — a desperate attempt to get a quick shower — her dog panted anxiously in the back of the car, spinning in circles like a goldfish in a too-small bowl.
The dog, a Catahoula mix, made Jami think of Todd.
Early last year, during the height of the pandemic, she had been looking for a service dog, when Todd had mentioned wanting to expand his family.
The conversation amounted to a road trip to South Carolina, to pick out two puppies.
They scooped a boy and girl from the same litter. Jami named hers Coral. Todd named his Bailey — “Bailey ‘Smalls’ Washington, the Ric Flair of all dogs.”
They helped raise the siblings together, and marveled watching the dogs listen for their other half through the ceiling and the floor that separated them.
“I don’t need pity,” Jami said. “I’m doing everything I can to keep the dignity that I have left. I just want the conversation to start and for people to pay attention, and care.”
Behind her, car after car pulled up to the drive-thru intercom as people placed orders for coffee.
Jami looked at her calendar and counted the weeks until she’d get to sleep in a real bed.
After nearly three months of living in his new apartment, Todd said he doesn’t miss the drama of the old building. He’s comfortable in his new place, and Marcia likes it better. It’s a place where they can rest. He does, however, miss Michael and Jami. He tries to see them when he can.
After couch-hopping for about a month, Michael landed in a long-stay hotel downtown. The building is within earshot of his old apartment. He hangs out with his neighbors, but he’s quieter these days, more kept to himself. The residents there pay month to month. He’s not sure how long he’ll be able to stay.
In late January, Jami got a phone call from the CEO of the company that purchased the building she used to live in. The Tampa Bay Times had reached out to a company representative during the reporting of this article, and upon hearing Jami’s story, the executive was moved to step in.
The news came while she was sitting in the rain outside of her old, boarded-up apartment, waiting for a FedEx package to arrive.
After 25 nights of sleeping in her car, she was going to be put up in a hotel until she could move into her new place.
Jami burst into tears.
“I had given up,” she said.