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ASAP Homeless Services closes, but St. Petersburg Free Clinic will open shelter for families

Free Clinic executive director Beth Houghton, right, discusses property improvements with contractor Jim G. Scott, left, and ASAP executive director Nylma Card as they tour one of the houses the Free Clinic will take over from ASAP.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Free Clinic executive director Beth Houghton, right, discusses property improvements with contractor Jim G. Scott, left, and ASAP executive director Nylma Card as they tour one of the houses the Free Clinic will take over from ASAP.

ST. PETERSBURG — Mornings brought the down-and-out off the streets for a hot breakfast, shower and change of clothing. For families with nowhere to go, respite came in the form of meals, bunk beds and a spot to play for little ones.

But after more than a quarter-century and mounting financial difficulties, ASAP Homeless Services, at 423 11th Ave. S, will be no more.

Homeless advocates, though, are relieved that an important part of its work is set to continue. The St. Petersburg Free Clinic plans to take over the ASAP property to provide short-term housing for a growing segment of Pinellas County's homeless — families with children.

"Probably a lot of these families will be newly homeless, not chronically homeless," Beth Houghton, executive director of the Free Clinic, said.

"Children are the common thread."

Sarah Snyder, president and chief executive officer for the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, is pleased.

"The need is huge," Snyder said, adding that an informal survey indicates that there at least 450 homeless families across the county at any given time.

"Because we couldn't get them into shelters, some of them are sleeping in their cars, on the beach. … For a while, we kept getting homeless families because of the economy. Now it's those who have exhausted everything. Their unemployment ran out, which is a big reason for a number of them."

Though expected to be little more than a formality, the new plan hinges on approval from St. Petersburg's City Council. An outstanding $100,000 Community Development Block Grant on the ASAP property means that its transfer to the Free Clinic must be approved by the council. The Free Clinic would take over the $100,000 loan, which will be forgiven in 2015, provided that the site continues to be used for transitional housing, said Joshua Johnson, the city's director of housing and community development. The transfer will be discussed at the council's Jan. 31 budget, finance and taxation committee meeting and by the full council on Feb. 7.

Meanwhile, the Free Clinic has begun evaluating the property near All Children's Hospital.

Last week, Houghton and contractor Jim Scott walked through the property, discussing what to do about bathrooms, kitchens, worn floors, gaping soffits, inadequate lighting, a rodent problem and an old storage building that might be better off demolished than repaired.

Houghton expects to house 11 families in three of the property's five buildings. A house with a common kitchen, two living areas and six bedrooms, each with a small bath, offers the most accommodation. Next door is a duplex with two small, two-bedroom apartments. A two-story building behind the administrative office has three one-bedroom apartments.

Houghton said families with teenage sons, often difficult to place because of concern for the safety of younger children, will be able to be accommodated in the standalone duplex.

Several organizations will work together to make the new program possible. Families will be referred through the Juvenile Welfare Board's Family Services Initiative. They will be screened by 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares and connected with social service workers from Personal Enrichment for Mental Health Services.

"A mini collaborative," is how Marcie Biddleman, chief operating officer of JWB, describes the new effort.

"We are talking about putting in childcare so families can look for work and they don't have to take three children with them,'' she said. "We are really trying to build a full circle of help. If we could just provide a couple of things that help stabilize people, then they can help themselves."

JWB will pay the Free Clinic for the families' lodging, "much in the same way they're paying for motel rooms for those families," Houghton said.

The takeover of ASAP's property comes a little more than a year since the agency's board fired its tiny staff and longtime executive director, Karen Bolden. Loyal supporters were livid about Bolden's firing and said they had not been aware of the financial crisis gripping the organization. Board chairman Shaun C. Robinson vowed to keep the agency open with the help of board members and volunteers, but without money, that proved impossible.

Late last year, Houghton was approached by friend and ASAP board member Leah Cutting, who asked for recommendations of agencies that might carry on ASAP's mission. The Free Clinic's board embraced the idea.

Founded in 1970, the organization at 863 Third Ave. N grew under the late Sister Margaret Freeman, "St. Petersburg's Mother Teresa." It encompasses a service that provides emergency food, financial assistance and referrals, a food pantry, medical clinic, community kitchen and temporary residences for men and women.

"We feel that ASAP's mission will continue and continue better than it has in recent years," ASAP board member Jason Card said.

Longtime ASAP supporters John Stewart, his wife, Sheila, and early volunteer Winnie Foster are pleased that ASAP's work will go on and expressed confidence in the Free Clinic.

"The fact that the shelter will keep its doors open is wonderful,'' John Stewart said. "It's really an essential part of the community and thousands of people have supported it with money, goods or caroling for the last 25 years. My one concern is that they reopen the drop-in center to provide homeless men and women with a shower and an address so they can get work."

That will not happen.

"It will be a different program," Houghton said. "I'm sure it is going to be a bit of a struggle for the community that this is a different program."

Families could begin moving into the new St. Petersburg Free Clinic Family Residence in April or May.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

By the numbers

These 2011 statistics are the most recent for Pinellas County. The next full count of the county's homeless will take place on Jan. 24.

373 total number of homeless families with children in Pinellas County

2,379 total homeless children

1,700 children share homes with other people

341 in emergency or

transitional shelters

144 live in hotels

or motels

21 waiting for

foster care

9 live in cars, parks,

campgrounds

65 unaccompanied children without shelter

99 live with their families, but without shelter

Source: Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless 2011 Point-in-Time Count

ASAP Homeless Services closes, but St. Petersburg Free Clinic will open shelter for families 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 4:28pm]
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