CLEARWATER — The Homeless Emergency Project has been a leader for two decades in helping people throughout Pinellas County get back on their feet.
And as the number of people it serves has grown, the nonprofit in the North Greenwood section of Clearwater has spread over five blocks of North Betty Lane.
Now it is poised to grow some more.
HEP recently received approval from the city of Clearwater to build a 10,000-square-foot headquarters building costing nearly $2-million.
It will be next to HEP's current 4,000-square-foot headquarters at 1120 N Betty Lane. The preeminent structure on the property now is Everybody's Tabernacle, from which HEP evolved.
The new building will feature, among other things, badly needed office space for caseworkers, more computers where people can look for jobs and facilities for discreet medical exams.
"We are trying to meet the demands of our community — the demand for intervention to end homelessness," said Terrance McAbee, HEP's vice president of operations. "We are prepared to take the challenge."
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The tabernacle's work with the homeless traces to the 1970s. It started when the tabernacle's founder, the late Rev. Otis C. Green, let the family of a church member who had lost his job stay at one of his properties.
The reverend's widow, Barbara Green, still serves as HEP's president and chief executive officer.
Today, HEP's facilities cover a large section of N Betty Lane in the northern part of the city.
It has a shelter for emergency housing as well as apartments and private homes scattered in the neighborhood where people can live for extended periods.
At other facilities near the housing, the 300 or so people HEP serves at any given time get services such as job skills training and mental, medical and substance abuse care.
Most recently, the agency built a 4,000-square-foot cafeteria. It expects to provide 90,000 free meals there this year. Two years ago, it provided 50,000 meals at a smaller cafeteria.
Last year, the agency also expanded the number of beds at its emergency shelter to 100.
But helping more homeless means the organization needs more space.
"Given the number of people that we assist, which is easily over 2,000 a year," said Bruce Fyfe, a financial planner and chairman of the HEP board, "we need modern, private and discreet facilities … to provide the services necessary."
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The building that now serves as HEP headquarters is a wing behind the tabernacle.
The wing will be returned to the church, except for the dental clinic at the rear, which still will serve the homeless.
The new building will be on the same property, next to the old headquarters, on what now is used mostly for parking.
It will have more space for some of the same functions. But it will also have new features.
For one, the building will have office space for workers from about 20 other agencies that come to HEP each week to provide services to the homeless.
There are workers from the Veterans Administration, for example, and Directions for Mental Health. Morton Plant Mease hospital workers will have a private room to do medical exams.
"What we really want in this building … is a true service facility," McAbee said.
The building will also be "green," built with environmentally friendly materials and including features like solar panels.
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HEP intends to apply for a building permit soon and break ground around August. It hopes to move into its new building a year from then, at the latest.
But it still must raise money.
So far, the agency has acquired $300,000 from the Pinellas County Community Development section.
It got an additional $100,000 from the city of Clearwater's economic development and housing section.
The agency plans to launch an official fundraising campaign in a couple of months to raise the rest. It aims to gather the remainder from at least one foundation and private donations.
The effort is one of countywide significance, Fyfe said.
He pointed out that other public and private agencies are trying to raise money or otherwise address a growing problem of homelessness in Pinellas.
Meanwhile, he said, HEP has a model that has proved successful over the years.
Since its inception, 72 percent of its clients have acquired "permanent and/or independent housing," the agency says.
Also, the agency says, its clients increase their income by 75 percent, in part because of training and accessing employment.
And it's important to note, Fyfe added, that the people who seek help at HEP come from all over the county.
"We are not (just) a Clearwater agency," Fyfe said.