CLEARWATER — The city will no longer fund the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, the City Council voted Thursday, squashing the last hope for one of Pinellas County's largest shelters and day centers.
The center's showers, beds, washers and job assistance programs will close by July 1. But few think the 85 homeless people who are served there every day will disappear.
Police, advocates and council members suspect the closure could lead locally to more public bathing, sleeping and panhandling — the same problems that prompted the center to open 13 years ago.
CHIP's funding, mostly through government grants, plummeted with the economy in recent years, executive director Ed Brant said. To pay for last year's half-a-million-dollar budget, case managers were cut and savings drained. The shelter's largest income came from the Clearwater Police Department, which gave $100,000 a year.
Police Chief Tony Holloway urged the council to "find some way to fund" the Park Street center, which houses the East Gateway police substation, a center for the downtown bicycle patrol.
Since CHIP opened, violations for petty theft, public drunkenness, public urination and defecation, and homeless camps have decreased. A reversal of those gains could hit police hard.
Holloway said he'd like to keep the substation open, but police would have to pay for the building's utilities and insurance. Officers would lose the leverage of revoking CHIP day-center privileges from troublesome vagrants. And the building, on a dead-end road next to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, could become another abandoned eyesore in a neighborhood notorious for crummy motels.
"We just can't cut this (funding) off right now," Holloway said.
But the City Council, which faces a grim budget over the next few months, said spending more on the center would be a weak investment.
"I've seen nothing from your organization or board to alleviate these problems that you know have been coming for four years," Vice Mayor George Cretekos told Brant. "I just don't see how we can do this."
The center, established by Holloway's predecessor, Sid Klein, worked on a model of rigid accountability. To stay in one of the shelter's 67 beds, residents needed to find a job within the first week.
Critics of the shelter said it enticed transients from out of town, hurting nearby homeowners. Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition president Shelley Kuroghlian said Thursday that the shelter helped "lay a community to waste," and that homeless services should be consolidated elsewhere.
"This is a war. This is a disaster. You need to triage," Kuroghlian told the council. "When you fragment your services … it just doesn't work."
Dr. Robert Marbut, a consultant on homelessness hired by St. Petersburg, wrote in a report that CHIP is one of the county's largest providers of transitional housing and services. If it closes, he said, it would "create a major problem" that would affect the entire county.
Sarah Snyder, executive director for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, said the people who depended on CHIP probably won't leave.
"They stay where they're used to," Snyder said. "They're like us. We have neighborhoods. This is their neighborhood. They've worked out a way to survive there."
The $100,000 not spent on CHIP, Mayor Frank Hibbard said, might not stay with the police. The department, like all branches of city government, will face cuts with the next budget.
"There's going to be a cost somewhere else," Hibbard said. "We're not going to get off scot-free."
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.