ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Free Clinic, highly regarded for its decades of work with the poor, is being accused of racism at its shelter for homeless women.
Several African-American women have accused the director of the clinic's 20-bed Women's Residence of giving preferential treatment to white women. They say black residents are forced to leave before they can support themselves, and white residents aren't held to the same standards. Black residents are forced to get jobs, they said, while white residents can simply pursue more education.
The allegations come at a sensitive time for the Free Clinic and its $4 million capital campaign for a new facility that would more than double the number of women it helps. As part of a city program, the clinic has asked for the forgiveness of about $150,000 in liens on a piece of property it bought near downtown for the expansion. Groundbreaking is planned for January.
Demetrius McCloud, 37, who is black and lives at the Women's Residence but is leaving Sept. 1, said everyone is not treated the same under shelter rules.
"It looks racist because of the way it pans out," she said. "One Caucasian works and goes to school and the others just go to school. All the black women are working and going to school."
Delilah Gamble, 43, who now lives in Pinellas Park, said she was forced to drop out of a GED program because Women's Residence director Cynthia Burnham insisted she get a job. "I just know for myself that there were certain people she did not pull out of school," she said.
In an interview, Burnham, who is white, said different issues must be considered. "It's a very individualized decisionmaking process to figure out what is best and what will meet the needs of each individual resident," she said.
The complaints arose a few weeks ago with Sylvia White, 49, who did not get along with her white roommate. White, who is African-American, was asked to leave the shelter.
Loretta Snow, 58, an African-American case manager at the clinic, said she recommended to Burnham that both women be discharged. Instead, the roommate was allowed to stay.
Snow was later fired, and believes it was because she advocated for White.
Beth Houghton, executive director of the Free Clinic, said the two events were not connected but would not elaborate.
Snow, who worked at the shelter for more than a year, said residents are afraid to speak up. Annette Cook, 52, who now lives and works in Clearwater, said she slipped an anonymous letter with allegations of unfair treatment for black residents such as herself under the door of the Free Clinic. It was addressed to Houghton, who is white.
In a meeting at the nonprofit agency's main building near downtown, Houghton said she's hurt by the accusations.
"The whole spirit of the Free Clinic is not only to provide food and medical care and case management and shelter for people in the greatest need in our community, but it's very important to us — it is part of our DNA — that that be done in an atmosphere of dignity and respect," she said.
The shelter's mission is to provide transitional housing and support for homeless women. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including prison, and drug, alcohol and domestic abuse.
About 150 women seek shelter each month, Houghton said, but the residence can accept only two or three. The racial breakdown for July was 65 percent white and 35 percent black, she said.
Houghton said she investigated the allegations with Milly Taylor, the African-American head of the clinic's shelter for men, and they found no evidence of racism. The clinic provided former black residents to talk about their experiences.
Shannon Jefferson, 35, who left the residence a year ago, defended Burnham. "I've never seen any racism between Miss Cindy and any resident," the laundry attendant said.
"As far as them saying that Miss Cindy is prejudiced, she is not. Miss Cindy treated everyone equally," said Debby Anderson, 56. "I still keep in touch with her. I don't know where this stuff is coming from."
But former resident Alberta Brown, 55, believes Burnham treated her unfairly, citing such things as receiving one bus pass at a time, when white residents got several.
"The thing she did for white ladies, she didn't do for me," Brown said.
Burnham, who has been in her position for two-and-a-half years, said helping women is her passion. "I'm very disappointed at how this whole situation has turned out, and I feel that I have done the very best job that I could, but more than that, I was so shocked and hurt, because this is not me," she said.
The St. Petersburg NAACP branch, which received complaints from two black women, has decided not to pursue the matter.
"It was easy to understand how the requirements of the program and customization of an 'action plan' for each woman could appear to be differential treatment to a woman coming in to the residence after experiencing hard times and trying to hold on to her dignity," Amber Robinson, of the branch's Legal Redress Committee, wrote in an email to the Times.
"It seemed to us that there may be more of a sense of losing independence and an understandable lack of trust coming from the women who complained rather than actual racial discrimination, though it could not be completely ruled out."
Houghton said the Free Clinic will continue to emphasize respect and compassion for all clients.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at (727) 892-2283 or [email protected] Follow @wmooretimes. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.