Laura Lanciotti was hooked on cocaine and liquor, unemployed and living under a highway overpass in downtown St. Petersburg when advocates for the homeless told her about Pinellas Hope.
She moved into the outdoor tent shelter in unincorporated Pinellas County in October, quit the booze and drugs and got a job as a security guard at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Pinellas Hope "helped me put my life back together," said Lanciotti, 55.
Once regarded as an experimental, quick fix to the area's growing homeless problem, Pinellas Hope has quickly become Pinellas County's leading social service provider since the shelter opened 12 months ago.
A $4-million expansion is set to break ground next year, and government officials are already scrambling to set aside funding to finance Pinellas Hope through 2010.
"It's helping a lot of people," said County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "The question now is whether or not it is big enough to accommodate the need."
But questions about the long-term impact of the homeless shelter persist.
County leaders have struggled to keep track of Pinellas Hope's former residents, making it difficult to determine whether they are thriving or back on the streets. Some downtown business leaders in St. Petersburg say the shelter has not eased problems associated with the chronic homeless they see on the streets, a group unlikely to succeed in the tightly controlled environment at Pinellas Hope.
Prospective tenants with a history of violence or sexual misconduct are usually not admitted to Pinellas Hope. Residents must help with daily chores, keep the staff informed of their whereabouts and meet regularly with their assigned caseworkers. Drugs and alcohol are banned.
It's a sparse lifestyle, but it's not without amenities. There are televisions, computers, weekly movie nights and holiday parties.
"We all settle in and really try to enjoy ourselves," said resident Chris Livingston, 39.
No remedy is cheap
Pinellas Hope opened on Dec. 1, 2007, as a five-month pilot program.
Altogether, Pinellas Hope has received at least $2.2-million since it opened, mostly in private donations and volunteer services. The money was spent on staff salaries, financial assistance for residents and basic operating expenses.
It costs about $25 a night to house each resident.
Even as local governments slashed support to other social service agencies, elected officials chipped in $1.09-million this year to keep Pinellas Hope open through September 2009.
That troubles some advocates for the homeless.
"This tent city is hurting all the other traditional programs that exist because they aren't getting the funding, especially in this time of need," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, founder of Refuge Ministries, a St. Petersburg homeless outreach center. "It's just tents, so why is it costing so much?"
Who's here, what's next
Pinellas Hope residents tend to be unemployed, middle-aged men. The average length of stay is 58 days.
Of 371 residents who were discharged from Pinellas Hope in its first five months, most found jobs and were able to move into their own place. It's unclear whether they still have jobs and homes.
Not everyone leaves Pinellas Hope better off. At least 73 residents were discharged, many because they weren't following the rules.
Pinellas County's homeless population has been on the rise for years. About 5,195 homeless people were counted in 2007, up 14 percent from 2005.
But it wasn't until an illegal tent city sprang up near downtown St. Petersburg in 2006 that the problem began to attract wide attention. The city raided the camp in January 2007, slashing tents, throwing away debris — and attracting headlines and criticism.
Pinellas Hope opened soon after, and the shelter has continued to evolve.
Pinellas Hope II, a 50-unit efficiency apartment building, is set to break ground next year. Meanwhile, officials in Pasco and Hillsborough counties have discussed setting up similar tent cities.
"This isn't going to go away," said St. Petersburg council chairman Jamie Bennett. "Pinellas Hope will be here for a long time."