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Like its homeless, hungry clients, St. Petersburg shelter is struggling to survive

ST. PETERSBURG

Battered with frequency by her children's father, Nicole Gardner was rescued from their Kissimmee home only to face new trials in St. Petersburg.

In her early 20s, three young children in tow and pregnant with twins — one of whom had died in utero — Gardner was sent to the streets by the very sister who had given her sanctuary.

Then there was Nina Hartley, in her 50s and living in a van on the property of a Pinellas Park church, the culmination of an unhappy odyssey from Ohio with an abusive boyfriend.

"Here I am on the street, an old woman and my little dog," she recounted three years later.

Hartley eventually found shelter at ASAP Homeless Services in St. Petersburg, where in recent months executive director Karen Bolden has put a roof over the head of a 53-year-old woman who twice tried to commit suicide after losing her home to foreclosure and subsequent misfortunes. Her roommate, also middle-aged, had been hooked on crack and owed money to her drug dealer when she was taken in by ASAP.

But situations like Gardner and her children — families facing life on the streets — are of most concern, those at ASAP say.

"That's my point of contention, making sure that we can take care of the children,'' said James Cartner, ASAP board president. Instead, he complained, funding seems focused on individual homeless people and places like Pinellas Hope and Pinellas Safe Harbor.

But ASAP — which has backyard playgrounds for its littlest clients, offers weekday breakfasts, showers and clean clothing for the street homeless and an ambitious job training and self-sufficiency program — struggles to qualify for local funding.

This year, with revenues of $292,000 and expenses of $348,000, the agency at 423 11th Ave. S came close to ending its 25-year run. In February, most of its staff was let go.

"We had to go down to one full-time employee and one part-time employee,'' Cartner said.

Limited room for families

Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center, which also helps the poor and homeless, praised the agency.

"ASAP has always been flexible in working with different family groups, some of the less traditional groups and with families with older boys, which is always a hard one (to place),'' she said.

"The need for that service for that population is growing."

New numbers from Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless point-in-time count conducted Jan. 23 support Walker's statement. Children under 18 represent 40 percent of the people without homes in Pinellas County, a 2 percent increase over a year ago, according to the coalition's latest census.

"We are probably, on any given day, about 200 to 250 beds short for families, which is why we find them on the streets,'' said Sarah Snyder, the coalition's executive director.

St. Petersburg's 2012 social services budget will focus on giving grants to agencies that serve homeless families or offer preventive services, said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's manager of veteran, social and homeless services.

"We have three priorities: families, unaccompanied youth and individuals,'' Abbott said.

"It's a complex issue. Who do you serve most? We just have to concentrate on making sure we serve all. It's like pushing a boulder up a mountain."

ASAP will have to score high in the competitive grant process that typically involves as many as 50 social service agencies vying for city dollars.

Coveted showers and meals

One recent morning, a bubbling casserole of noodles, vegetables and turkey sent its aroma through ASAP's main building, a converted house where people drop off black garbage bags of donations. Worn towels, neatly folded, lay ready for those lucky enough to have signed up early for showers that day.

In the back yard, men and women sat patiently on plastic chairs, waiting for coffee and the noodle casserole breakfast to be served through a grille-covered kitchen window.

"I come here every day,'' said Douglas Lamar, 52, who has been homeless for a year.

A few chairs away, Rebekah Edwards, 33, and Kevin McCoy, 49, sat across from a baby stroller filled with their worldly possessions. They had pushed it from the shadows of City Hall, where they spend their nights.

They crave the showers at ASAP.

"It's nice to be able to clean myself every day. (But) because of the budget cuts, only 20 people are allowed to take a shower,'' Edwards said.

That morning, she was No. 20 and McCoy was 21, but when someone gave up a spot, he was able to get the coveted shower.

Cutting back on the showers, loads of laundry and high energy bills had to be done, Cartner said.

"We really had to go back and resort to the preboom model,'' he said. "When the stock market was doing well and before the recession, there was a lot of funding for homelessness. Over the last couple of years, with the recession, a lot of grants have really dried up.''

ASAP is looking for new ways to raise money and has turned to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to spread word of its work, Cartner said. Meanwhile, it depends on volunteers and loyal givers like Shore Acres resident Kay Griesmeyer to get through the financial crunch.

"What impresses me most is they take in women and children,'' said the grandmother of six whose contributions include birthday parties for children at the shelter and dozens of washcloths for the morning showers.

Joan Malone, who will be 90 on June 3, volunteered until about four years ago.

"She was impressed by both the work they did and the need for it,'' her daughter, Moon Reilly, said of Malone, who is now in a nursing home. Reilly is asking friends to donate to ASAP in honor of her mother's birthday.

Hartley, now 60, who once slept in her van, has a place of her own these days and volunteers every weekday.

"My life has done a 360, and that's in large part to ASAP,'' she said.

For Gardner, 23, the abused young mother, ASAP has meant safety and peace of mind. She and her older children arrived at the shelter in August. The new baby was born in November.

One recent afternoon, just back from her new job at Wendy's, she rushed to answer the phone in ASAP's office, where she regularly volunteers.

"It's a great place," she said.

"I went from having nothing (to) slowly getting my life back and getting on my feet.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

By the numbers

Rising homelessness among Pinellas County families

697

in 2009

792

in 2010

990

in 2011

Homeless children

1,700

share homes with other people

341

in emergency or transitional shelters

144

live in hotels or motels

21

waiting for foster care

9

live in cars, parks, campgrounds

65

unaccompanied children without shelter

99

live with their families, but without shelter

Source: Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless 2011 Point-in-Time Count

To help

ASAP Homeless Services

423 11th Ave S

St. Petersburg, FL 33701

(727) 823-5665

asaphomeless.org

Like its homeless, hungry clients, St. Petersburg shelter is struggling to survive 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 5:30am]

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