CLEARWATER — Does the homeless shelter near downtown attract vagrants? Or would homeless people come to sunny warm Clearwater anyway, whether there's a shelter or not?
After a lengthy debate over that question and others, a divided City Council has decided to give the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project an additional $120,000 to keep its daytime center open for the next year.
But council members are not happy that city taxpayers are now kicking in about 40 percent of the shelter's funding, and they want to see some changes.
For one thing, they want to explore whether CHIP could possibly merge with other local organizations such as the Homeless Emergency Project.
CHIP, which runs a shelter off Cleveland Street just east of downtown, was founded by the city. It operates as a separate charity so that it can solicit donations from the public, but contributions have dropped off. Meanwhile, HEP, a long-running source of help to the homeless, was founded by a pastor and has grown to occupy five blocks in north Clearwater.
On another issue, City Manager Bill Horne has asked Police Chief Sid Klein to step down as president of CHIP's board so the city can keep the charity at more of an arm's length. It was Klein who spoke to the City Council twice this week to ask for more funding for the shelter.
Klein started CHIP in the 1990s after the city asked him to do something about the growing number of homeless.
After a long and passionate debate Thursday night, the council voted 4-1 for the additional $120,000, with Vice Mayor George Cretekos opposed.
"We're not the United Way," said Cretekos, who questions why the city should financially support CHIP more than other nonprofit groups.
The other City Council members voted for it, even though they don't agree on how much responsibility Clearwater has to deal with the homeless problem.
"What concerns me is creating a magnet for the homeless," said City Council member Paul Gibson. "We want downtown to be a destination. I don't want it to be a destination point for the homeless."
Council members Carlen Petersen and John Doran saw it differently.
"Homeless people were here before CHIP," Doran said. "Places like Lealman and Jacksonville Beach don't do squat for homeless people, and they have homeless people."
He argued that allowing CHIP's day center to close would leave the homeless with little to do except sit on benches downtown, "which is what everyone has told us they don't want."
Shelley Kuroghlian, a member of the grass roots East Gateway Coalition, complained that the homeless shelter's location hampers the quality of life in the neighborhood east of downtown.
Horne said that even if the shelter were to close, the city has no control over the St. Vincent de Paul Society's soup kitchen next door to it. The city wouldn't mind seeing the soup kitchen move to another location, but the kitchen has no plans to do so.
"It's human nature to find and gravitate toward a food source," Horne said. "The elephant in the room has always been the soup kitchen."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.