Leaders of Pinellas County's tent city for homeless people can list its benefits after 18 months. Food. Shelter. Opportunity to reset troubled lives.
But actually showing that homeless people stay off the streets months after leaving Pinellas Hope has proven difficult.
In a survey of 371 people who stayed at the tent city between December 2007 and April 2008 — the pilot project phase — only 16 percent reported that they still had housing. Many of the others couldn't be tracked down, didn't respond or were elsewhere.
It's a drop from the success rate found in the first report last fall. Then, a survey found 51 percent had housing after leaving the program. Organizers' goal was 40 percent.
The results are a measuring stick as county and city officials decide whether to put money into the $2.4 million program for 2010. Pinellas Hope leaders want the county and city to continue to pay half that cost. But given the lean times, it's unclear whether funding for the homeless will survive all the required budget cuts.
"I think it's probably the lowest cost per-person effort to help the homeless. We serve a large population at a very low cost," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which manages the program.
This summer, Pinellas Hope plans to build an 80-person permanent housing complex next to the tent city at 5762 126th Ave. N. A medical respite to help people released from hospitals and needing temporary housing also is planned. State and federal housing money will cover the costs of the permanent housing, with contributions from Pinellas's housing trust fund. Grants will cover the medical project.
Pinellas Hope organizers acknowledge that they need to do a better job tracking the population they service. Already, discussions have begun to see if the county's 2-1-1 community voice mail system can be used to better connect with people after they leave.
Homeless people are sometimes loath to provide contact information, even if they have it, Murphy said.
The tent city was created by the county, city and private groups to ease rising homelessness and unease among residents.
St. Petersburg earned notoriety in 2007 after city workers slashed tents of 20 homeless people living in a makeshift camp. A third of the people staying at Pinellas Hope come from St. Petersburg, where the average stay is more than two months in the 250-bed complex. On a given day, 230 to 240 people are there, Murphy said.
Pinellas County spent $770,000 in the program, and St. Petersburg and other cities put together $336,000. Private groups, donors and Catholic Charities gave $1.25 million, mostly in donated services.
Some advocates for the homeless have questioned whether that money was spent wisely. For example, the Salvation Army, which operates homeless shelters and programs, didn't want to help with the tent city. The area commander at the time, Major Allen Satterlee, said the organization had "serious questions" and had "our hands full with what we have going on already."
But the Salvation Army has a new commander, Major George Patterson, who recently lauded the project. The army has contributed by helping with meals and services.
"It is worth the money because they are doing the most dignified thing that they can do so that people are out of the elements," Patterson said.
Murphy said the private money has been promised again, but local governments still need to commit.
County Administrator Robert LaSala and the County Commission have made no promises.
"We've always said if we can't operate as partnership as government county and city with private parties coming together, then we won't operate it," said Murphy, though the expansion projects could continue.
Nonetheless, Commissioners Calvin Harris and Ken Welch expect the money will be included in the 2010 budget.
"The rate of homelessness is increasing," Welch said. "It would seem to be the perfect time to invest in housing."
St. Petersburg, meanwhile, has pledged to distribute a portion of a $914,999 federal stimulus grant to Catholic Charities for homeless prevention activities, which will likely be channeled through Pinellas Hope. It's unclear how much of the grant will go toward Pinellas Hope.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.