ST. PETERSBURG — A 55-bed dormitory and service center for homeless teens gained preliminary approval from the City Council on Thursday after a few initial bumps.
Starting Right, Now, a Tampa-based nonprofit, was close to inking a deal with the Pinellas County School District to occupy the vacant Harris TIP school, at 4600 Haines Road, when council member Darden Rice this month asked for a delay in zoning changes.
Neighborhood residents needed to be consulted, she said.
This week, the charity's founder, Vicki Sokolik, did just that, meeting with Harris Park residents and answering most of their concerns.
Many residents had questions about how the high school students — who have left home, have imprisoned or deceased parents, or are otherwise "unaccompanied" — would interact with the neighborhood, as well as questions about what kind of activities and supervision they would have.
A flurry of school buses into the neighborhood remains a concern, but most residents are cautiously supportive, said Paula Montlary, an officer in the Harris Park neighborhood association.
"We're embracing this," she said at Thursday's council meeting.
Council members praised the group's mission to help homeless teens graduate from high school and learn life skills such as personal banking, responsibility and community service.
But they told the organization's board members they should have consulted the residents first.
"We apologize if there has been a rocky start," board member Michelle Shimberg said.
On Thursday, the council unanimously approved the zoning changes, but several hurdles remain, including multiple public hearings.
If all goes well, the former school— shuttered since 2011, when it provided services to teen parents — can become a temporary home for the teens with round-the-clock security and staff.
Sokolik told residents at a meeting Monday that their group home in Tampa had never had any complaints to police from residents. The group rigorously screens participants and holds them to high standards, including work requirements and individual mentors, she said.
The nonprofit was in the public spotlight last year after the Tampa Bay Times reported that it sued two former participants for thousands of dollars in cost. Those suits are no longer being pursued, and the group's rules allow only $2,000 in costs to be collected from someone who leaves the program, Sokolik said.
Rice said she still wanted more details from the group but was "heartened to see that there are some people with big hearts" in Harris Park and Greater Grovemont.
In other news:
The council unanimously directed city legal staff to draw up a resolution in support of a proposed ferry service between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Mayor Rick Kriseman said a ferry was long overdue.
"It's something the community wants," he said.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago