Clearwater homeless shelter faces closure

CLEARWATER — One night last year, Frank Holub, a former stockbroker, found himself sleeping in a dog park.

Fired from his job, booted from his apartment, the 57-year-old was desperate. Then he learned about a place called CHIP.

The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project was a short walk from downtown, next to a soup kitchen. It had a day center, with phones, showers and a laundromat, and a shelter, with dozens of beds and two cribs.

But CHIP, Holub learned, was demanding. Applicants were ordered to find a job within a week. Drunks were shown the street. Shelter workers expected budgets and goals. In return, they promised a home.

Holub found a stocking job at Toys "R" Us, and moved into a bunk bed. He now serves as a father figure at the shelter, exhorting the younger guys to reuse their paper plates. He enforces curfew. And he keeps his paychecks with his case managers, to save up for a home of his own.

"This is a wonderful place if you have the discipline to start over," Holub said. "If you've got a bad attitude, you're not going to last long here."

Holub is one of more than 10,000 men, women and children who have come to the Park Street shelter since it opened in 1998. A brainchild of former Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein, CHIP was founded on an uncommon model of accountability. Rules were rigid. Tough love was law.

But in recent years — as grants, donations and reserves plummeted — CHIP faced the kind of financial struggle that its residents know all too well. Rumors spread among the bunks: The shelter was broke. Barring a big donation, CHIP would close by July 1.

Clearwater's other shelters can't fully make up for the lost beds. The county's few other shelters already struggle under demand. Ed Brant, CHIP's executive director, worries many might return to the streets.

"A lot of the people who need us will be hurt," Brant said. "The 70 people a day who come here, where are they going to go?"

• • •

In the early 1990s, downtown was notorious as a haven for vagrants. Locals complained they bathed in fountains, drank in public, slept on library tables, talked to themselves. Police were overwhelmed.

Spurred by frustrated city leaders, Klein spearheaded a task force to clean up downtown. He was an unorthodox leader. A decade earlier, he had allowed officers to dump the homeless at the Pasco County line, a move advocates called heartless. (For his cool demeanor, Klein had once earned the nickname "Iceman.")

But Klein began to research, looking into programs, touring shelters across the state. His task force settled on a complex plan, built on a simple idea. "The realization," Klein said, "was that food was the great motivator."

Partnering with the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen next door, the CHIP shelter became a clearinghouse for identification cards, offered for free with enrollment at the shelter. To get food, you needed the card. It drew the homeless into counseling and rehabilitation programs, giving them a place to eat and case managers the upper hand. "On the streets of Clearwater," Klein said about the card, "if you were homeless, that was gold.'

On a dead-end road in East Gateway, a neighborhood notorious for squalid motels and day-labor firms, the shelter and soup kitchen became beacons. Day center staff helped the homeless get medicine and buy bus passes. An in-house police substation dispatched officers as outreach workers. The Parkbrooke Apartments opened next door as transitional housing, the next step from a shelter bed.

Crime went down, Klein said. Property values went up. Homeless people once arrested for crimes like public urination and sleeping in public were no longer outlaws. The model worked.

But it wasn't cheap. CHIP's annual $600,000 budget depended on police, state and federal funds, which dwindled with the economy. The City Council, which chips in $100,000 a year, will discuss this week whether to continue.

The crippling blow, Brant said, came with the freezing of a $270,000 state grant two years ago. In the past year, even with the 20-person staff slashed in half, the shelter's rainy-day fund was drained dry.

"We've been using money we always thought we could fall back on," Brant said. "Now we fell back, and we have nothing."

Klein, the president of CHIP's board of directors before his retirement last year, called the impending closure tragic, though not a surprise. Neighbors worried about crime and aesthetics, he said, waged a "continuous battle" against the shelter. "Homelessness is not a pretty issue," he said. "The problem is not going away."

East Gateway homeowners said CHIP's closure, while positive, wouldn't ease their fears while the soup kitchen remained open. The homeless problem, some said, seemed only to have worsened.

"I've seen more in the past two weeks than I've seen in a long time," said Patty Bianco, an East Gateway native. "People coming through with their backpacks and their skanky clothes, real grubby looking, like they just crawled out from under a rock to get something to eat."

Maryce Garber, who lives half a mile from the shelter, called the shelter's closure a "step in the right direction."

"We don't want that to be our identity," Garber said. "This is progress. We're making progress."

• • •

The shelter is a drab and simple place.

The hallways are papered with Craigslist job ads for call centers and sushi joints. The closets hold spare dress shirts, for interviews. The men's room is watched by a cubby of angel figurines, and the women's holds a pillow that reads, "We can fix broken hearts." Out back is a smoking porch with bikes chained to it, and a black-and-white stray cat named Skittles.

In a few weeks, this place may become just another abandoned building. The counselors and case managers may set off for points unknown. Some residents may find openings in the county's packed shelters, like Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope. Others, Holub said, will simply "survive."

Access to stabilizing services — mental health, food stamps, veterans' benefits — will diminish. The poor and homeless, coached by case managers into work or counseling, will be on their own.

Melissa Vallone, 40, a former social worker, moved into CHIP in February after serving time in jail on charges of prescription pill fraud. She was forlorn and broke. A case manager told her of the shelter's rules. Vallone went to search for a job.

She found one at a call center, where she has worked for more than a month. In her free time, she takes lessons on how to budget. She had never learned how to build a "nest egg," she said. She counted on her fingers how much she has saved — about $135.

One night last week, she sat talking with two women, amid the bustle, in the home's austere kitchen. Living here was a blow to the ego, she said. But it was home.

"If it wasn't for this place I don't know where I'd be," she said. "Without this program, a lot of us would be lost."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Clearwater homeless shelter faces closure 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 3:32pm]

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