Tampa Bay mom and daughters lived in a car. Now, donated decor makes for a new start (2023)

CLEARWATER — Inside the crowded warehouse, two women weave between shelves stuffed with lamps and dishes, sheets and pillows, talking about the young mom they recently met.

“She wants to keep things simple. She doesn’t even want a TV,” Ashley Cornetet says. “She wants lots of light, somewhere to do crafts with her kids — a safe, quiet space to rest at night.”

Kelley Vitorino opens a notebook. A few days before, when she and Ashley met the mom in her bare new apartment, Kelley had made sketches, measured the windows, the single bedroom.

Tampa Bay mom and daughters lived in a car. Now, donated decor makes for a new start (1)

“So three beds, right?” Kelley asks.

“Yes, a toddler one for the 2-year-old if we’ve got one, a twin for the kindergartner,” Ashley says, flipping through donated mattresses. “And let’s find her a queen. Somewhere she can stretch out.”

They knew the mom had been crashing on her own mom’s couch with her daughters. That she and her girls then spent months living in her Toyota hatchback, moving between parking lots.

Two weeks earlier, the mom had finally found a subsidized apartment. But she had no furniture.

Only an air mattress, where they all piled on the floor.

“What if we put the girls’ beds over here by the window, and hers by the door?” Kelley asks, consulting her diagram. “That way, she can walk in at night without disturbing them and crawl into her own bed.”

A cream-colored lamp for the nightstand. An ivory quilt. Everything folded into plastic bags, labeled by room, stacked against the warehouse door.

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• • •

Three years ago, early in the pandemic, Ashley saw a Facebook post from a young couple with a 4-year-old daughter. They had lost their jobs as restaurant servers — and sold their furniture to pay rent.

Reaching out to friends, searching through social media marketplaces, in 10 days, Ashley furnished their tiny house in Pinellas Park for free. She even found a pink princess bed.

“All of a sudden,” Ashley says, “I knew what I was supposed to do.”

Ashley, 42, had earned a degree in graphic design, then spent her career staging high-end homes for real estate agents, never worrying about a budget.

When she helped the couple in July 2020, she realized she would rather furnish spaces for people who had little, to seed second chances. So she formed a nonprofit, The Pineapple Projects. “Pineapples mean welcome, hospitality and warmth,” she says. Her husband, two children and more than a dozen volunteers help.

“We work with Habitat for Humanity, the Veterans Administration, the Red Cross and other groups,” Ashley says. “They find people places to stay. We turn the empty houses into homes.”

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She started collecting donations from neighbors, churches, parents of her kids’ friends. So many people were buying furniture during the pandemic, discarded items quickly filled her garage. She rented a storage unit. Then, in November, leased a warehouse off 49th Street in Clearwater.

Ashley met Kelley, 47, when she was unloading furniture. Kelley was heading to her car when she turned back, saying, “I’m an interior designer. I want to help.”

The women work more than 40 hours a week but don’t draw a salary from the nonprofit. They thank their husbands for letting them volunteer full time. Donations and grants pay rent on the warehouse, and buy things to finish furnishing the homes.

Together, Ashley and Kelley meet families in their new spaces, ask about their needs and tastes. What colors do they prefer? What makes their kids smile?

“A lot of times in a crisis, you lose everything. Even your identity,” Kelley says. “Your home should be a reflection of who you are, what you want to be.”

In the warehouse, the women pull donated toasters, headboards, laundry baskets — piecing things together by aesthetics and intention: Desks to do homework. Dining room tables to gather. Lots of lamps for warmth. Shelves filled with books and games. Blankets to snuggle under. When they can’t find something, they search for free items or head to Target.

“We want them to have everything they need to start over,” Ashley says. “We want them to feel like this place is theirs.”

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They have designed rooms around superheroes and “Stranger Things,” Minecraft, “Trolls” and Marilyn Monroe.

They ask the family to leave for a few hours while they set up everything for a home makeover reveal. “Only most of these people have never had their own homes,” Ashley says.

One mom with four teenage boys had spent two years living in motels. She cried when they came home to discover two bunk beds.

Another family of eight had settled in a 500-square-foot studio. Ashley found them four trundle beds. “Design isn’t just decorating,” says Kelley. “It’s problem-solving.”

When a 92-year-old veteran got out of the hospital and moved into an apartment, he only had a broken wicker chair, which kept cutting his arm. “I just want somewhere to sit that won’t hurt me,” he told Ashley. She got him an armchair and an American flag to hang over his new couch.

It’s not a matter of handouts, Kelley says. “We’re helping them heal.”

The group helps about one family every month. The apartment for the mom and her daughters will be the 48th home they have created.

• • •

“Hurry up and get ready. We have to go to the park,” Xiaja Canty, 24, tells her girls on a Saturday in April. “The pineapple people are coming.”

Her toddler, Azala, is standing by a battered table in the near-empty apartment, feeding her stuffed bunny a banana.

Izzy, 6, puts down her toy cat and looks up, eyes wide. “What’s happening?” “It’s a surprise,” her mom says. “Now come on.”

After packing granola bars into the diaper bag and putting shoes on both daughters, Xiaja steps outside and sees the Shawn and Shawn Moving van. The company donates a free move each month to The Pineapple Projects.

“We’ll text you when everything is ready!” says Ashley, walking up with a caddy of cleaning supplies.

As the movers unload her new couch, Xiaja buckles her girls into the Toyota that used to be their home.

She had grown up with her receptionist mom in Pennsylvania, spent summers and high school with her dad in Chicago. He was in graduate school, struggling to make ends meet. One winter, she says, they shivered for months without heat.

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She got pregnant at 17 and moved back in with her mom. Then her mom relocated to Florida. When Xiaja learned she was expecting a second child, she followed.

Jobs as a medical assistant, at Amazon and UPS warehouses helped pay rent at her mom’s one-bedroom apartment. But she couldn’t afford child care and a place of her own. So she slept on the couch, or shared the bed with her mom and girls, saving what she could.

“We were making it work,” she says. “Until the neighbors complained.”

The girls were “too loud.” There were “too many people in that apartment.” The landlord gave Xiaja and her daughters two weeks to get out.

“What am I going to tell the girls?” she wailed to her mom. ”What if they get taken from me?” She packed a cooler, a bag of clothes, her daughter’s kindergarten backpack. A couple of blankets. The double stroller. Flashcards and coloring books.

On weekdays, she would take Izzy to kindergarten and her toddler to the library or a park. After school, they would have a picnic, often peanut butter and jelly, then go to Target just before it closed to brush teeth, use the bathroom and take a “bird bath” in the sink.

Sometimes, she would pick up a Venti hot water from Starbucks to make oatmeal.

“We’re going to be OK,” she kept telling her girls. “Mom’s figuring things out.”

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Overnight, she usually parked outside Morton Plant Hospital, where it was well-lit and she felt almost safe. The baby would fall asleep in her car seat. Izzy curled on the back seat, or on the passenger side. Xiaja barely tipped back the driver’s seat so she could watch through the windows — and make a quick getaway if she had to.

She tried not to cry until her girls had fallen asleep.

To pass the time, and convince herself she was coping, she made YouTube videos of their #carliving “adventure,” showing her packing groceries into bins in the hatchback, making tortilla wraps on the dashboard, sitting on a blanket with Izzy, teaching her to sound out words.

• • •

Earlier this spring, Xiaja Googled “help for single moms.”

She’d found a job at a day care in April, where she could bring her toddler. Then she discovered Shepherd’s Village, a Christian nonprofit that, among other things, rents a dozen subsidized apartments.

She started attending Tuesday night classes there, learning about budgeting and the requirements for housing. The nonprofit helps single moms find work, receive counseling and finish school, said April McKnight, who helps run the resource ministry. Under certain conditions, like holding down a job, abstaining from substances and attending a Christian church, moms may stay in a Village apartment for up to three years.

After a couple of weeks, a counselor found out Xiaja and her girls were living in their car and put them on a waitlist.

So many Floridians are a paycheck away from bouncing between motels, crashing on someone’s couch, living in cars.

And since the pandemic, the problem has been increasing, with more than half a million homeless Americans in 2022.

Hillsborough County reported 1,513 homeless people last year.

Pinellas counted 1,985 — plus 64 who were couch surfing.

Dozens of agencies help people find places to stay. But with rising rents, and so many people moving to Florida, affordable housing is harder to come by.

What comes next — settling in and making a home — can be a heavy lift, too.

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Xiaja pays $650 a month for the 600-square-foot apartment — plus $50, which Shepherd’s Village puts into a savings account for her. She and her girls moved into the empty unit on April 14.

For two weeks, they sat on the floor and read books. They ate at a battered toddler table, drew crayon pictures to brighten the walls. Finally, they had somewhere safe to shower, change and cook spaghetti. Where Xiaja could sleep without keeping her foot on the gas, where she could snuggle between her two girls on a borrowed air mattress.

• • •

Barstools and bags of linens. End tables and artwork in frames. An armchair, a dresser, a gauzy canopy with colorful pompoms.

While movers lug the heavy stuff upstairs, Ashley and her helpers carry boxes. Her daughter cleans the kitchen counters. Her husband stretches filmy curtains across the living room windows.

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A friend frames photos Xiaja sent from her phone, hangs them by the front door.

“We can use this to create a reading nook over here,” says Kelley, unrolling a round rug. She sets a big bean bag beside it. Carries over a small bookcase. “Goodnight Moon,” “Harry the Dirty Dog” and “Jonah and the Big Fish” fill the shelves.

She folds new blankets into a basket: A bunny print for the baby, cat faces for Izzy, both soft fleece to wrap up in while their mom reads them stories.

Two black-and-white prints hide a hole over the sofa. Everything is beige, white, light. A wooden desk fits by the breakfast bar. On it, a plaque proclaims: “You are meant for big things.”

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“Hey, guys, we need to pick up the pace here. We have to be done in about 15 minutes,” Ashley calls at 11:15.

In little more than an hour, they have filled the rooms.

The pompom canopy dangles in the bedroom corner, a place for the girls to escape. The dresser fits inside the closet, leaving more room for three beds. The girls have white quilts and new stuffed rhinos. Xiaja gets a pile of pillows.

“It looks so cute!” coos Ashley, taking photos. “I’m going to text her to come back.”

Kelley fills a bowl with apples, sets out zucchini bread and berries. Ashley puts stuffed pineapples on the bean bag — each home they furnish gets some sort of pineapple.

“She’s pulling up!” Kelley calls.

The girls run in first, over to the couch, then the books. Xiaja follows, trying to take everything in. “Wow!” she says. “This is so, so me! Wow! You even brought curtains! Oh, this is amazing.”

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“Why don’t you go check out your bedroom?” asks Ashley.

In the doorway, Xiaja stops and sobs. It had been six years since she had her own bed.

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How to help

The Pineapple Projects doesn’t find housing for people, but it furnishes homes for people who have been on the streets or couch surfing. For more information, call 727-386-8236.

On Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., the nonprofit accepts new and gently used donations at its warehouse, 11203 49th St. N, Suite E2, Clearwater, FL 33762.

To suggest someone who needs home furnishings, fill out this nomination form.

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