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Front Porch office in Midtown may have to close

ST. PETERSBURG — At an aging Hewlett-Packard computer, volunteer Sharon Madison patiently types in information for a man in need of unemployment benefits.

"This might take a while," she says quietly.

Many of the people who come into Front Porch's 16th Street S office can't use a computer. Some can't read or write.

But the trade library where residents work toward a contractor's license and the community garden where children learn about nature may soon close after state funding disappeared.

And no one saw it coming, according to local organizers.

Front Porch communities were informed about losing state funding by the state Department of Community Affairs on June 25 — five days before the existing contract ended, said St. Petersburg executive director Lolita Dash.

"It's almost like a slap in the face," she said. "This is not how you do business."

The 20 statewide Front Porch programs provide youth services and career training in underserved communities.

James Miller, spokesman for the department, said the communities were notified in November that funding would possibly be cut. The communities were previously paid for through trust funds.

"All those ran out," he said.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the Legislature was forced to make hard choices in light of this year's budget crisis.

"It would be an absolute tragedy if that office had to close down," he said.

To add insult to injury, Dash said, the checks for a popular youth training program are late.

As of Thursday, 10 children had been working for three weeks without pay, Dash said. The Youth Empowerment Leadership Development Academy uses on-the-job training to teach students to be responsible and reliable.

"And then we turn around and say, 'You're not getting paid today,' " she said. "What is that portraying?"

Rodney Bennett, a part-time consultant, said he has offered to help the group at a reduced rate.

"They had the money taken from underneath their feet," he said.

He's now working in overdrive to raise money through Web site donations and new youth programs, Bennett said. Dash said the St. Petersburg branch would need nearly $50,000 a year to stay open.

Front Porch St. Petersburg opened in 1999 at 1523 16th St. S. The organization offered a roofing program in 2006 that helped residents learn the trade and emerge with jobs at the end of a workshop. It was later cut because of funding.

The Front Porch Community Garden and Outdoor Classroom grew out of a vacant lot next to the organization's office. Mango, lemon and pomegranate trees blossom where homeless people and drug addicts roamed.

During a spring break camp founded by the Rays baseball team, children prepared food with the herbs and plants they grew — rosemary chicken and a mixed salad.

The garden has been a troubled spot, however. Police were called to the area more than 160 times last year. Residents blamed activities at That Dam New York Liquor Store at 1443 16th St. S, where most of the arrests occurred, according to police records. Plants were stolen from the Front Porch garden along with three heavy wrought-iron benches, Dash said.

But the area has been quiet since. The community has bought into the positive services the office provides, she said.

Youth program contracts can keep the center afloat until August, Dash said. For now, she volunteers her services.

Madison, a Midtown resident for 25 years, said volunteering helps her give back to her community.

But if Front Porch closes, she said there's only one thing she can do.

"Move and try to start over," she said.

Jackie Alexander can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or jdalexander@sptimes.com.

Front Porch office in Midtown may have to close 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 5:31am]

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