CLEARWATER — Amy Vazquez, the owner of a Mexican grocery, has a front-row seat to the East Gateway neighborhood.
Vazquez Veggies is just a few blocks west on Cleveland Street from the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, which is slated to close in three weeks.
She's not convinced, as some on the City Council are, that CHIP's closing could lead the homeless who depend on its services to go somewhere else.
The homeless know the neighborhood, she said — the soup kitchen, the church feedings — and they're not likely to give it up.
"They think the people will disperse. … It's absolutely ridiculous," Vazquez said. "They may scatter, but they're still the same people."
The impending closures of CHIP's shelter and day center, which have served 10,000 people since opening in 1998, have led many to question where the homeless will go.
CHIP's executive director, Ed Brant, said caseworkers have found new homes for 30 CHIP residents at packed local shelters run by the Homeless Emergency Project and Pinellas Hope.
More than a dozen others who had beds remain stranded. That's not counting the 85 homeless people a day who seek help at the day center.
And time is running out. After initially estimating that CHIP would close by July 1, Brant now says its last day will be May 15.
People reliant on CHIP's unique day center — where the homeless can shower, wash their clothes and receive counseling on jobs, veterans' benefits and mental health — now find themselves without sanctuary.
Brant said some of CHIP's clients "were talking in an upset way," saying they would brave arrest by panhandling or washing their clothes in the fountain as a show of resistance.
"Most of them said they're just going to be hanging around," Brant said. "They still feel safe in this area. I'd say the vast majority, if not all of them, will stay."
The loss of CHIP's 69 beds, bunks and cribs will not be absorbed easily by the other shelters, most of whom are at capacity. At Homeless Emergency Project, Clearwater's largest shelter, all 340 beds are full.
"This closure just further solidifies the need for the availability of shelter space," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, an advocate for Safe Harbor, which opened in January. "We need your HEPs, your Pinellas Hopes. We need those in the continuum of care, where people can transition."
How the closure could affect local businesses remains to be seen. Police cautioned that crimes seen less during the shelter's operation — homeless camps, petty thefts, sleeping in public — could return when its services disappear.
"They'll certainly filter into downtown," said Clearwater Downtown Partnership chairman Bill Sturtevant. "Are we concerned? Yes. But I think it's still at the point of wait and see."
Some business leaders, however, doubted CHIP's downfall would affect them much. Many have grown accustomed to vagrants passing their storefronts.
George Zamoznick, an owner of Lou's Tattoos, about a block from the shelter, said that over the last year he's seen half as many homeless people nearby. The closure, he thinks, will thin crowds out even more.
"It's not as bad down here as it used to be," he said. "Guys used to sleep all the time in our parking lot. I haven't seen one in quite a while."
Cyntthia Sterba, a formerly homeless mother, moved out of CHIP and into a mobile home in December after finding a job at a local rib shack. Last week, she wrote the city that she was "saddened . . . and very scared" for the residents there who had no other options.
"CHIP gave to us what we couldn't have possibly gotten anywhere else," she wrote in an e-mail. "A chance. A home.
"When it closes its doors for good? I will see all those people as I already do when I am out and about in the city. Hiding from police as they do in places that they shouldn't be sleeping (because they) have no other choice."
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.