BRADENTON -- Lost within the eclectic Ballard Park neighborhood near downtown Bradenton is a small community where residents struggle to survive on a daily basis. Many live on disability benefit checks that leave little money to cover the basic necessities of life. Sometimes making ends meet doesn't happen at all.
But this circle of people, many who once were homeless, has discovered that working together can make a difference.
They had all been strangers in a neighborhood that was occupied by drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves. But a few months
ago, that all began to change. They were just tired of being afraid. The eclectic group of neighbors, each with their own tale to tell that led them down the path to poverty, first came together for a potluck dinner on Thanksgiving.
Kristina Gomez, affectionately called "Mama" by her neighbors, organized the first dinner. The event brought strangers together. Strangers became friends, friends became family and that shared bond set in motion the concept that a family needs a home, not just a place to live.
"We were going to take back our neighborhood," Gomez said.
It hasn't been easy, given the nefarious reputation of the complex at 1515 Ninth Ave. W. that residents call the Parkside Apartments.
Margie Malanda, 66, moved into the small apartment complex in September.
"When I first moved in here, there were all these drugs in here and I heard gunshots all the time," she said. "I was petrified. Before recently, you would never see kids playing in the parking lot, but now you see them outside playing. Before now, even the homeless were afraid to cut through here. Now we work together as a family. Nobody is an outcast here."
Most would look at the complex and not give it a second thought, or if they did it would be one of relief for not having to live there.
"People here aren't rich; otherwise, they wouldn't live here," Miranda said. "The place I live now once had a drug dealer in it. There was a drug addict next door who got beat up for not paying the drug dealer. Other neighbors would fire their guns at night and were always in trouble.
"But we are taking it over," she said. "Alone, you can't do it. We trust each other. We couldn't do this if we didn't trust each other. Just because we are low-income doesn't mean we are different."
Management has noticed what the residents are trying to do. Thanks to a new superintendent, Junior Baker, who lives in the complex but works for free, is systematically trying to rid the complex of troublemakers. Baker moved in with his wife about seven months ago and asked the landlord to let him clean the place up -- "but to do it my way," he said.
His way has been effective. Baker's first action was to contact friends in the Bradenton Police Department and Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Police stepped up patrols and cracked down on drug deals thanks to what has become a neighborhood watch.
Bradenton Police Capt. William Fowler said the area still has issues, but he is noticing the difference as neighbors come together.
"The more eyes and ears we have besides police officers, the better," he said. "I can attest to the effectiveness of groups like that from finding missing children to watching out for burglars. These people are starting to realize that this is their neighborhood and they aren't going to tolerate that kind of activity. It's the people there that want this change and they bring it about."
Grace Collett moved in last June after losing her home.
"I used to come visit my friends here, but wouldn't stay long," she said. "I chose not to be homeless by moving in here. I was terrified knowing I had to live here, but it's not so bad now. It was horrifying at first with lots of drug dealers. Three out of every four people here were into something illegal."
Cat Lewis moved in around the same time with her disabled daughter.
"I wouldn't even leave my room," she said. "My daughter and I stayed inside. It was just crazy. Drug deals in the parking lot all night.
"But we are getting this place cleaned up. We are decent people, just impoverished," she said. "Even if some of us are in transition, we still want to have a home where we are now. To do that, we have to change our environment."
All for the children
Twelve children live in the apartment complex's 18 units, which don't feature much more than four walls and a roof.
The community has goals beyond ridding the complex of the criminal element.
They want to find a way to get a swingset for the children, a basketball hoop and a picnic table.
It's things most people might take for granted but for Parkside residents, it's a lofty dream of enhancing their community.
"Everything is for the kids," Malanda said. "We all watch out for them. It's all about them."
It may sound like a simple dream, but this is a community that can barely afford the basics. Lewis said by the time she pays the rent and electric bill, "I have $40 left over for everything else."
Fortunately, they aren't completely on their own. Bayside Community Church's Downtown Ministries program has been working in the area for the past three years.
Christine Monroe-Loomes, a retired law enforcement officer now working with Downtown Ministries, said it used to be an area that not even she would come to at night.
"There were some very sketchy people here and a lot of drugs," Monroe-Loomes said. "There was garbage everywhere and we would clean it up one day, and the next it would be like we had never been here. But now you have a quality group of people who care about how they are living and care about their neighbors. They want to have a home, not just a place to sleep."
Neighbors now gather outside their apartments for socializing, something they wouldn't dare to do just a few months ago. They continue monthly potluck dinners and will hold a special one in April to honor Baker for all his hard work in moving the drug dealers out.
Management has added security cameras that one of the residents monitors from his home at night. They fix one another's personal things, find each other furniture, and one neighbor volunteers as a tutor for the children.
Malanda say this is how you turn a building into a home.
"With love for one another," she said. "Money doesn't buy you decency. Wealth comes from the heart."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.