CLEARWATER — The St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen has served the local homeless and working poor every morning for nearly 30 years.
The Catholic charity and its 150 volunteers have spent thousands of dollars buying food, counseling clients and renovating the kitchen at 1345 Park St., in the East Gateway neighborhood east of downtown.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Frank Hibbard wrote to the charity with a big idea. What if the kitchen moved to Pinellas Safe Harbor, the homeless shelter next to the Pinellas County Jail? The city would even pay for a "first-class kitchen" at the new location to sweeten the deal, he wrote.
It would please the neighbors and keep the homeless closer to social service providers, Hibbard explained later. "Win-win," he said.
St. Vincent de Paul leaders didn't see it that way. Patrick Farmer, president of the charity's upper Pinellas district council, declined the offer out of "regard for our clients and our ability to be of service to them." The soup kitchen and its 200 daily diners weren't going anywhere.
Hibbard is incensed.
"St. Vincent de Paul has never really cared much about the community," he said this week. "They are basically blind to what some of their services do to the rest of the neighborhood."
Consider it the latest clash in a long debate over how to deal with the homeless. City leaders want to consolidate food, shelter and other homeless services at Safe Harbor, a shelter near Largo opened earlier this year by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
It's a strategy that advocates criticize as warehousing of the homeless. Church and homeless advocacy groups would rather scatter countywide, offering aid in areas where they are needed. But officials say that ends up luring the down-and-out into neighborhoods where they're not wanted.
One key battlefield is the East Gateway neighborhood. Residents there have long complained that vandalism, public urination and neighborhood fear are perpetuated by the soup kitchen's offer of free meals. Some cheered when the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, a shelter and day center next to the soup kitchen, closed for lack of funding in May.
Farmer said the soup kitchen has done all it can to be a good neighbor and that it appreciated the offer. As for Hibbard's thoughts on the charity, he said, "He's entitled to his opinion. That's all I have to say about that."
Mary Lou Guthart, who runs the soup kitchen, said moving would devastate the people who depend on the kitchen for help. Many have part-time jobs nearby and could not follow the kitchen to the Largo area.
Soup kitchen events like the Christmas gift giveaway for children could also disappear. The Safe Harbor shelter, which houses nonviolent offenders, does not allow children.
The involvement of the 150 soup kitchen volunteers could also be questionable at Safe Harbor. Guthart, a retired nurse, is a volunteer herself. She has not been paid since she first began wiping down tables at the kitchen's old building 24 years ago.
Guthart said she doubted moving the soup kitchen would satisfy the grumbling neighbors anyway. The kitchen has been at its current site since 1990 — longer than some of the nearby homes. The charity moved there, she said, because many homeless lived nearby, not the other way around.
"We were here," she said, "because they were here."
Hibbard's idea will likely die with St. Vincent de Paul's rejection, as the charity owns its land and has no desire to close or move. Hibbard said that's bad news for the neighborhood and the people the kitchen serves.
"All they're doing is feeding. They're not serving the underlying issues, like addictions and, sometimes, mental health issues," Hibbard said. "They have their mission, and they pretty much feel they're going to stick to it regardless of how it affects anyone else."
But Guthart said the kitchen gives more than just food. A social worker offers counseling. There are showers, washers and dryers, and a chapel for meetings. Volunteers give out clothing vouchers and provide bus tickets so clients can get to doctors' appointments.
"Can you imagine moving all this?" Guthart said, standing in the soup kitchen's walk-in cooler surrounded by vegetables for the next day's meal. "This place is perfect for us. Absolutely perfect."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.