CLEARWATER — Calling the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen an enabler for people living on the streets, city officials are taking aim at the charity's main resource: its donors.
They have discussed urging the 30-year-old kitchen's donors to give their gifts of food to some other charity.
That is the city's latest attempt at making it tough for the kitchen to continue to operate in the East Gateway district east of downtown, where neighbors and homeowners have complained bitterly that the kitchen attracts undesirables and crime.
But St. Vincent de Paul leaders say city interference could prove disastrous to the group's daily mission, already strained by swelling crowds of the needy and underfed.
"I would hate to think someone would do something to interfere with the food coming in so we can feed the poor," kitchen president Vincent Nico said. "The city thinks if they close the soup kitchen, the homeless will just go away."
The idea of trying to discourage the soup kitchen's food donors was outlined over lunch at a downtown pizzeria last month by City Manager Bill Horne and homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, hired by the city to craft "action steps" to address the city's homelessness problem.
In his notes, Horne wrote that Marbut suggested the city "make (a) call to upstream food donors to discontinue making food donations to (the) soup kitchen to encourage greater use of Safe Harbor," which is a homeless shelter outside the city limits that is operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
It's no secret that city officials want the soup kitchen and other so-called "street feeders" to go away. When St. Vincent de Paul leaders last year refused the city's request to move the kitchen to Safe Harbor, then-Mayor Frank Hibbard said the group "never really cared much about the community."
Marbut and city officials contend the kitchen's lack of services such as job placement or health counseling only enables homelessness by providing food free of charge. Steering donors to consolidated service centers like Safe Harbor, the city contended, would permit more efficient use of their gifts.
"You can't do street ministry if you don't have food," Horne said. "If those food donations found their way to Safe Harbor, that's the direction where those wanting to do food ministries would go. We would get more bang for our buck."
But St. Vincent de Paul leaders said cutting the kitchen's supply lines would hurt those unable to make the 8-mile trek to Safe Harbor next to the county jail.
"They're human beings," said Kris DiGiovanni, the soup kitchen's executive director, of the poor and homeless who eat at the kitchen. "They're not a liability. They're not a problem. That's the difference between our perspective and the city's perspective, I guess."
The kitchen, at 1345 Park St., serves full meals to up to 200 men, women and children every day between 9:30 and 11 a.m. Meals are prepared by volunteer cooks and served in a small cafeteria.
Guided by Feeding America, a national network of food banks, St. Vincent de Paul volunteers pick up food — items just past their sell-by date but still edible — three times a week from stores that sell groceries, such as Sweetbay and Walgreens, and from fast-food restaurants like KFC.
Other food donations, volunteers said, come sporadically from local residents or departing snowbirds. Bayview Gardens, a retirement community in Clearwater that is closing, filled two vanloads with canned and frozen foods.
With more than 15,000 homeless people, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area has the highest rate of homelessness among metropolitan areas in the country, according to a 2012 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
But Clearwater's offerings for the homeless have shrunk as officials have pushed for consolidating services in places like Safe Harbor or a nearby tent city named Pinellas Hope — a practice critics deride as "warehousing." The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, a shelter and day center next to the soup kitchen that offered a number of services, closed last year after the city withdrew a $100,000 grant.
Clearwater still is home to one of the county's largest nonprofits serving that population, the Homeless Emergency Project north of downtown.
City officials have already begun to act on Marbut's strategies. Earlier this month, Mayor George Cretekos wrote a letter to the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen asking it to shorten its meal time and serve meals more than two hours earlier, at 7 a.m.
Cretekos called the kitchen's current serving time "very counter-productive," a deterrent for day services like job placement. Marbut said the soup kitchen's serving time could "increase the homeless and enable and sustain homelessness."
But kitchen volunteers bristled at Cretekos' suggestion, saying they serve not just breakfast, but full meals of meats, starches, vegetables, fruit and dessert.
"This," DiGiovanni said, "may be the only food they eat that day."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.