Many years before she became a caretaker for the homeless in Tampa, Antoinette Hayes-Triplett knew she was going have to make a difference in the world.
It wasn’t a calling, a burning bush or a vision that informed her she was supposed to use her life to give back. It wasn’t even a choice, really.
What drove Hayes-Triplett to her passion was her mother. More importantly, the example her mother set.
Hattie Hayes got married when she was about 17. She had her first child shortly thereafter. Within seven years, she had five children before a divorce left her a single mother.
This was St. Louis in the 1970s, and while life was difficult for the young mother, Hattie managed to become a surgical nurse and a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“If she can do those things,” says Hayes-Triplett, the third child, “I have to do at least that.”
Hayes-Triplett is the CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. The organization’s goal is to provide services for the homeless as well come to the aid of people on the brink of homelessness.
Working with other local groups, it administers funding through social service agencies; develops and monitors new and existing housing and service programs; and coordinates the county’s annual homeless count.
The goal, according to THHI’s website, is to improve crisis response systems, implement models to help those in need and engage the community. The organization holds job fairs, speed leasing events with landlords and clinics to help people expunge their records. It is also part of Continuum of Care, a regional group that helps people become self-sufficient as they move from homelessness to stable housing.
The COC received a $39.7 million grant last year to work with agencies to provide housing and services to homeless families and individuals. Hayes-Triplett chairs Continuum of Care.
Hayes-Triplett began working at THHI in August 2014. Her personal passion, and the project closest to her heart there, is Operation: REVEILLE, a one-day rapid rehousing program aimed at ending homelessness among veterans.
The program’s aim is to reach homeless vets and get them housing assistance, food, financial help and, when needed, treatment for substance abuse. Vets also get help to find furnished apartments and then work with case managers on how to access other services, including job training and help with transportation.
She helped create Operation: REVEILLE in St. Louis in 2013 and was asked to replicate it in Tampa when she moved to town. The catch? Her new bosses wanted her to hold the one-day program on Veterans Day in three months.
It was daunting putting all the pieces together but “we did it,” she says. “We pulled it off. Fifty-one veterans were housed on Veterans Day.”
Since Hayes-Triplett joined THHI, there has been a 42% reduction in the number of homeless veterans in the area, according to the organization. The program is in seven states now and Hayes-Triplett, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense working to spread it nationally.
“Hopefully,” she says, “we can sunset Operation: REVEILLE in Tampa soon when we have every vet that’s experiencing homelessness housed — right now, we have about 140, 150 — and I think we can get there by the end of the year.”
But as much as Hayes-Triplett has dedicated her life to the cause of homelessness, working on the cause was not her original goal.
The third of Hattie’s five children, Hayes-Triplett originally wanted to be a journalist. But after a couple of false starts in college, she wound up joining the U.S. Air Force in 1989.
During her time in the military, she was able to go to school and earned two bachelor’s degrees and her master’s degree. Journalism was off the table by this point and she was looking toward becoming an officer and spending her entire career in the military.
Then, as it did with Hattie, fate interfered.
One month before becoming an officer, Hayes-Triplett was in a car accident and hurt her back so bad she had to leave the Air Force. She worked in several positions over the years, including as a planning executive in St. Louis for 13 years.
“All those things put together made me the person I am in this job,” she says, adding, “I don’t think this is the stopping point either. The goal is to continue to make policies that will make changes, not just here in Tampa, not just Hillsborough County, but across the nation.”
That approach to life, that you as an individual with one gesture or an organization with one program can affect change in the larger world, is one of the most important lessons Hayes-Triplett learned from Hattie.
You see, in the mid-1970s when Hattie was a very young single mother with five children, there was a raffle that would allow families to move into a single-family home in a diverse neighborhood. You needed a $1 to buy a ticket and to show proof you could afford to fix up the home — Hattie, who is 73 today, had somehow managed to save about $15,000.
They got the house and the kids were put to work hanging drywall, repairing the roof and knocking down walls.
“One little deed, by someone I don’t even know has changed four generations for my family,” she says. “And now we can do the same thing for other people as well.”
And they have done just that. Hayes-Triplett, her siblings and Hattie have funded seven scholarships at Southwestern Illinois College. The scholarships are in Hattie’s name and the siblings’ names. They are for graduates of East St. Louis High School, where they all went to school.