CLEARWATER — Fearful of unleashing a flood of homeless people onto downtown's streets and sidewalks, the City Council debated Monday whether to spend nearly $120,000 to keep the local homeless shelter from closing its doors during the day.
The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, known as CHIP, has been taking in the homeless at its location near downtown for a decade. But it's in a financial crisis because charitable donations have dropped off.
Police Chief Sid Klein, who founded CHIP, and City Manager Bill Horne asked the council to earmark $120,000 from the city's budget to keep CHIP's daytime shelter open for the next year.
Council members debated some questions: What's the humane thing to do? What's the smart thing to do? What's the best thing for city taxpayers? For downtown businesses? Would closing the shelter put more people out on the streets, or would fewer homeless come to Clearwater in the first place if there were no shelter?
They'll make a decision at Thursday night's council meeting.
Klein said CHIP, which has an annual budget of roughly $500,000, is looking at a shortfall of $120,000, which is how much it costs to run its day center.
CHIP has an overnight shelter as well as transitional housing that's intended to get people back on their feet. But its daytime center is currently serving about 80 homeless people a day that the shelter doesn't have beds for, Klein said.
The day center is a place where people can take a shower, use the bathroom, wash their clothes. It's intended to be the first step in helping them move from the streets to self-sufficiency.
Klein warned that closing the center could push another 80 homeless people into downtown and the East Gateway area. Police officers responding to complaints from the public would end up moving the homeless around with no particular destination in mind, he said.
City Council members had mixed reactions Monday, especially since CHIP is seeking an additional $120,000 on top of the city's annual $100,000 contribution. CHIP isn't a city program but instead operates as a charity.
George Cretekos questioned why the city should financially support CHIP more than other nonprofit groups.
Paul Gibson said there are Web sites that direct the homeless to Clearwater because of the services it offers. And he argued that the county government should be contributing more. But Gibson also worried that if the city doesn't rescue CHIP, it will ultimately cost the city more because police officers will have to deal with the homeless more often.
Carlen Petersen and John Doran, who are members of the county's homeless leadership network, think the city's contribution will be necessary.
"There are people who would like the homeless to be elsewhere," Doran said. "Merely closing down the day shelter isn't … going to make them go anywhere."
Petersen added, "If CHIP closes, I think the ramifications will be far more costly in the long run and are going to have impacts on this city that you're not going to want to see."
"The business owners and others are going to start screaming," she said.
"They're already screaming," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, who works downtown. He suggested that CHIP look into consolidating with other local homeless agencies.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.