ST. PETERSBURG — Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg has reconsidered its plans to close Pinellas Hope at the end of April, according to church leaders.
But it is unlikely that the controversial tent city, which has been lauded by business and government leaders for providing shelter to the area's increasingly visible homeless population, will remain open without community support.
Funding for the five-month pilot program will run out April 30, and it could cost the diocese up to $50,000 a month to keep part of the shelter open to the homeless.
Business and civic leaders have offered to raise the necessary funds to keep Pinellas Hope open until at least October. If the shelter is not in operation, they say, the nearly 200 homeless people at Pinellas Hope will likely be forced to return to sleeping on park benches, sidewalks and in alleyways.
"We just don't want to see it end," said Ross Preville, a member of the county's Homeless Leadership Network and a wealth management specialist for Raymond James who is leading the fundraising campaign. "People don't just need help in the winter months. They need help year-round."
Catholic Charities opened Pinellas Hope on a private lot owned by the diocese in unincorporated Pinellas County in December. At the time, the organization deemed the tent city a five-month experiment, not a permanent solution.
Some homeless advocates said the tent city was nothing more than a Band-Aid and called on homeless people to boycott the shelter.
But shortly after Pinellas Hope opened its gates, the 250-bed shelter was at capacity. Government leaders hailed it as a creative remedy at a time when statewide budget cuts meant less funding for local social service agencies.
Still, Catholic Charities said it was reluctant to extend the program past April without further review. The nonprofit has tapped the University of South Florida St. Petersburg to study the tent city.
Catholic Charities president Frank Murphy said the outcry of support persuaded church leaders to reconsider closing the shelter.
"Our goal at Catholic Charities is to help people. If people are willing to come forward and help us do that, why would we say no?" he said.
More than 400 homeless people have stayed at the shelter since it opened. At least 90 people were discharged from the shelter because they had found housing. There are still about 220 people living at Pinellas Hope, and dozens of names remain on the shelter's waiting list.
"We got them into a place where they are safe," Murphy said. "They are not going to get beat up, they can try to get jobs if they want, take a shower, use the bathroom, you know, things you and I take for granted."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.