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Advocates for the homeless prevented from reopening Clearwater shelter

CLEARWATER — Clearwater's shelter and day center for the homeless opened in 1998, the brainchild of a police chief and built with $650,000 in taxpayer funds.

The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project was, by most measures, a success. Over the years it lowered crime; mandated curfews, work and counseling; and housed 10,000 men, women and children otherwise destined for the street.

But last May, after a state grant was frozen and the city eliminated $100,000 of yearly funding, CHIP closed. The empty building became a squatters' haven on a dead-end neighborhood road.

In the months since, as homeless numbers continued to rise, CHIP leaders sought to reoccupy the center with mental health counseling or a shelter for homeless families.

But they say they've been hindered by a powerful force: city leaders and planning officials, who have blocked any new social services there because of a 15-year-old policy.

CHIP's permit allowed a shelter only as long as the police substation there stayed open, planners said. The police department closed the substation in November and has no plans to move back in.

That's a "frustrating" obstacle for homeless advocates, said CHIP board chairman Carlton Ward. "We worked so hard to get funding to build a nice facility," he said. "All we can do is . . . mothball the building. Close it up and let it sit."

But for city leaders and homeowners in the East Gateway neighborhood east of downtown, who have for years crusaded against CHIP and the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen next door, it marks another step toward ridding the neighborhood of the homeless and social services.

In a November email, after plans for a family shelter were dropped, City Manager Bill Horne wrote to the City Council, "I hope this is the end." Horne said this month that daytime services are still being offered there without authorization.

Neighbors of the center and soup kitchen say East Gateway's safety and property values have been threatened by the services' "clients." City leaders have mostly listened and agreed.

Four months after CHIP's closure, Mayor Frank Hibbard asked whether the decades-old soup kitchen would pack up and move. Upon their refusal, he said they "never really cared much about the community."

On Thursday night, the council discussed a list of conditions that kitchen leaders said would convince them to move. Some, however, fell outside of the city's jurisdiction. Hibbard said he was interested, though he admitted many were "difficult."

Last month, a city development board rejected a proposed Catholic shelter for poor pregnant women because its building, a defunct nunnery, was too close to the soup kitchen — three football fields away.

But CHIP, with its showers, washing machines, 68 beds and two cribs, was something more than a home. The "tough love" shelter required residents to pass drug tests and find a job within a week. The day center connected the homeless with a service network of bus passes, counseling and rehabilitation.

"CHIP served a real function: It was a place where people could come first and start getting involved," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "There isn't a location like that now."

The need for services remains, especially in Clearwater and North Pinellas, where advocates say homeless folks are moving because of crackdowns in downtown St. Petersburg. Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which runs the long-term shelter Pinellas Hope, told the Tampa Bay Times that Clearwater and North Pinellas are seeing "more homeless than ever."

When CHIP opened, the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless estimated the county was home to about 3,000 homeless people. The group's last count, in 2009, found more than 6,000 homeless people, nearly a third of whom are children.

Clearwater leaders maintain that relocating homeless services to outside city limits, like the shelter at Safe Harbor and the "tent city" at Pinellas Hope, is the best way to conserve public funding.

To defend their strategy, they point to St. Petersburg's homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, who has pushed for centralized homeless services, coordinated countywide.

But in his final report in November, Marbut called the closure of CHIP "non-strategic" and said it presented "major challenges to the overall service delivery network."

The lack of local housing and services for families with children, Marbut added, remains at "crisis level." Neither Safe Harbor nor Pinellas Hope accepts children. CHIP did.

Retired Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein, who helped create the center at 1339 Park St., said CHIP had long balanced the soup kitchen's offerings and called its closure "a step backward" for the long-term homeless problem.

But resistance to social services in the neighborhood, Klein said, had always been too strong.

"It was probably inevitable that the opposition to CHIP's existence," he said, "ultimately won out in the end."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Advocates for the homeless prevented from reopening Clearwater shelter 01/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 14, 2012 1:57pm]
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