ST. PETERSBURG — Nurturers of ASAP Homeless Services for a quarter-century were part of a small, passionate group that peppered the ailing agency's leaders Thursday with angry questions.
Why was longtime executive director Karen Bolden fired? Why weren't they told that the agency was facing a crisis? Why hadn't the board supported recent fundraising efforts? Would ASAP survive?
The questions came days after the agency, which has fed and provided shelter for the homeless and poor since 1986, temporarily closed its drop-in center and dismissed its small staff.
Board chairman Shaun C. Robinson conceded the organization is "experiencing difficult financial times,'' but vowed to keep it open with the help of board members and volunteers. The drop-in center, where homeless men and women receive their mail, take a hot morning shower and eat breakfast, would reopen on Monday, he said. The board, he added, was doing "everything in our power" to keep ASAP around.
Even as he said so, a few of the agency's money woes were revealed.
A representative of the owner of the building where the meeting was being held stood up and asked ASAP to vacate the property by Nov. 29. The agency hasn't paid rent in seven months and is $21,000 in arrears, she said.
A fraternal group that has provided an early Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gifts for ASAP clients for the past seven years demanded its $800 check back. When the board suddenly closed the drop-in center last week, a planned holiday dinner had to be hurriedly moved to another location, members of the Foresters said.
Through it all, Robinson, ASAP's fourth chairman in 10 months, remained calm. He spoke of "preserving the integrity'' of the organization and said last week's downsizing was necessary to "enable us to operate under the budget we now have.'' Robinson also held out the possibility that the three laid-off employees might be reinstated if the organization becomes "cash-flow positive" and said that the drop-in center at 423 11th Ave. S is going through "a brief period of upgrades.''
The dozen or so people gathered Thursday were skeptical. Some questioned whether ASAP could function with only volunteers and board members.
"You gave us a bunch of words,'' said Robin Sterling, a longtime fundraiser and volunteer.
"Telling me the board is going to step up is frightening to me. This organization is Karen."
Rosa Matos, who represented the owner of the property at 1055 Fourth St. S, which houses ASAP's program to help the homeless become self-sufficient, also praised the former executive director. She borrowed money from friends and family and even used her income tax refund to try to pay the rent, Matos said.
John Stewart, who serves on ASAP's advisory board with his wife, Sheila, spoke of their dissatisfaction that Robinson and other leaders had not shared the agency's problems with the community.
"I want you to know that you have over a century of collective memory in this room and you had not talked to any of us who have helped this organization through worse times than this," he said.
"If this is your business plan, this doesn't bode well for ASAP."
Winnie Foster, a veteran civil rights leader and early ASAP volunteer, also was not impressed with Robinson's plans.
"I'm challenging you to change my mind about this," she said and suggested that he set up a task force from those in the room to help solve the organization's problems.
Robinson defended the board.
"There were times when the board came together to make the payroll,'' he said, adding that board members will give up their personal lives to spend time at ASAP on Thanksgiving Day.
Nylma Card, board secretary, emphasized at Thursday's meeting that the agency is still serving homeless families in its shelters. By Friday, she said, the women's and children's center would be full.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.