CLEARWATER — Sometimes Earnest Kelley sits motionless inside his one-bedroom apartment with the brown wicker and wood furniture and modest wall decorations, and listens to the peace and quiet.
The decorations are a luxury he wouldn't have dreamt of when the brown walls of a cardboard box propped outside the Clearwater Main Library downtown were his only shelter.
The sound of silence is a sweet change from when he shared a group home with eight other men at the Clearwater Homeless Emergency Project.
The 67-year-old, who used to work construction jobs until he developed health problems, credits the counselors and programming at HEP with putting him on the path toward financial stability, sobriety, spirituality and renewed health.
Kelley says his 31/2-year stay at HEP allowed him to save enough money for his move last September into subsidized housing. He's looking for a part-time job, aiming for a bigger apartment and car within three years.
"I'm doing pretty doggone good, I have to say," Kelley said. "Sometimes I sit back and wonder. I wish I could've done this 10 years ago."
Kelley is among hundreds of clients who have changed their lives through Clearwater-area programs for the homeless.
However, some Clearwater city officials blame ineffectiveness by existing programs for their decision to pass new laws targeting the homeless population and for their attempt to steer the homeless to Safe Harbor, a jail-diversion shelter outside of the city.
The city and a consultant it hired advocate a "one-stop shop" approach to services for the homeless, rather than the historical model of scattered organizations. They also criticize charities' street feedings that don't offer services needed to steer the homeless toward self-sufficiency.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos thinks Pinellas County should add counseling and job training to Safe Harbor, operated by the Pinellas Sheriff's Office near the county jail.
"What we've been trying in the past hasn't worked," he told the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board last week. And he and others have said opening shelters is not the city's responsibility.
While social service advocates agree that homelessness is a countywide problem, they say their programs work.
Ed Brant was executive director of the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP), a shelter east of downtown that operated for 12 years until it closed last year, shuttered by neighborhood opposition and the city's withdrawal of funds.
"CHIP's been closed for a year now and all of a sudden the laws have to be passed," Brant said. "So it seems to me CHIP was working and without CHIP being there, there's nothing else for them to do except pass tentative laws against homelessness."
City leaders and homeless advocates agree that the goal of programming should be rehabilitation. But that was already happening, said Barbara Green, co-founder of the Homeless Emergency Project, Clearwater's largest resource for the homeless.
"We do it all the time," said Green, whose operation covers five city blocks in north Clearwater. "We take in chronic homeless all the time and they do change."
HEP vice president Libby Stone said HEP ushers clients through a three-step rehabilitation process: emergency shelter, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. From January to June 30 this year:
• 316 (64 percent) of the 493 people who exited the emergency shelter went on to stable housing, 123 (25 percent) went to a hospital or another emergency shelter that better met their needs, and 54 (11 percent) returned to the streets.
• Of the 111 people who left HEP'S transitional housing program during the period, only 14 returned to the streets.
• Of the 62 people discharged so far this year from permanent supportive housing — the last step before moving into the community — only one has returned to homelessness.
"Our success rate is through the roof," Stone said. "Our motto is we want to be the last homeless shelter a family, individual or veteran ever has to enter and we take that very seriously."
According to Green, "Working with case managers on a daily basis with a number of support services makes the difference."
Indeed, Clearwater homeless consultant Robert Marbut has touted HEP as a model program.
The former leaders of CHIP said they were once regarded as a model too. Spearheaded in 1998 by former Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein, CHIP required the homeless to obtain identification cards in order to eat at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen next door. The card provided access to other services. Klein says CHIP worked, processing about 700 unduplicated individuals each year.
Cretekos said this week that he didn't like CHIP's escalating funding requests.
"That never happened with HEP, Religious Community Services and the Salvation Army," Cretekos said. "At the time, I made the remark, 'The city is not the United Way.' "
To its credit, Klein said, the city did help CHIP financially for years. CHIP was a good intermediate step, he said, as is Safe Harbor, "but it's at capacity."
"And when you establish a program like that, you have to look at it like a huge wheel," Klein added. "You have to have all the spokes in place, such as transportation, feeding, social services, security. If not, that wheel isn't going to turn efficiently. And it's a huge demand to put on the sheriff, who's fighting the budget battles just like everybody else — maybe even more so."
Klein suggested that a gas tax or a food and beverage tax, similar to a measure used to support homeless and domestic violence programs in Miami-Dade County, could spread the burden of funding programs among all county residents.
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When Tampa and St. Petersburg implemented laws to make it more difficult for the homeless to remain on the streets, many of them moved to Clearwater, said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Homeless Leadership Board. That created problems the city decided to address with a similar set of get-tough laws.
"I understand why Clearwater did it," Snyder said. "Whenever you have people sleeping or defecating on people's or businesses' doorsteps, that is an issue."
CHIP, Snyder said, did a great job and is missed. There is some benefit to having a large facility like Safe Harbor where services can be concentrated, she said, but many folks seeking services these days in Clearwater are families. Safe Harbor doesn't admit families.
And advocates say it would be difficult to persuade the working homeless with jobs in Clearwater and no car to spend hours traveling roughly 9 miles by foot or bus to Safe Harbor.
Green, of HEP, said if Clearwater is going to "do away with the (homelessness) solution, there needs to be a solution to replace it — whether that be creating something else, or supporting the programs that exist."
That's what Cretekos and City Manager Bill Horne say they intend to do. They will urge the City Council to pump up to $225,000 into Safe Harbor, HEP and three other area agencies that help the poor and homeless: RCS, the Salvation Army and Pinellas Hope.
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Ron Joyce was one of the first clients to enter CHIP's doors when it opened in 1998. He was a 40-something felon with a drug habit who had lost his apartment and couldn't pay thousands of dollars he owed in motel bills and court probation fees.
He received services from CHIP for 14 months, worked and saved money, attended AA meetings and got involved in the nearby Christian Life Church. He turned his life around and ended up on CHIP's board of directors.
Today, the semi-retired Joyce, 61, is completing a master's degree in organization leadership management after earning a bachelor's degree from Springfield College. He plans to move north to be with family and attend a seminary to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a pastor.
"I came from eating in restaurant Dumpsters to where I am now," said Joyce, of Port Richey. "I just thank God that there was a place where I could turn my life around."
Earnest Kelley, the three-year veteran of HEP who now enjoys his own apartment, continues to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, visit HEP for counseling and receive monthly home check-ins from advisers. Through computer classes, he reconnected with the father and sister he hadn't seen in 50 years and the daughter he hadn't seen in 28.
"HEP gives you a place where you can get much more perspective on yourself. And you see the ones who are making it, doing the right thing and it all comes together if you want it to," Kelley said.
He cautioned that the resources available for the homeless won't work for everyone. You have to want to follow the rules and to change course.
"This is just a start," said Kelley. "Next year, it'll be better."
Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.