CLEARWATER — A Catholic charity's plan to open a shelter for poor pregnant women could be doomed by a city zoning code and neighborhood unrest.
The Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg last month asked the city to open a shelter for nine women in a vacant convent near the St. Cecilia Interparochial Catholic School.
Led by a house mother, the Foundations of Life Villa, at 1305 Franklin St., would also offer counseling and transportation for the women before and after childbirth.
But city planners say they will likely reject the plan before its review by the city Community Development Board next month. They say the site sits too closely to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen — a violation of city code.
No two shelters offering "temporary residence or sustenance" can operate within 1,500 feet of each other, assistant planning director Gina Clayton said. The kitchen and shelter would be about 1,000 feet away.
"Our community would be much better served by giving these women shelter instead of having them walk the streets," said John Morris, a diocese spokesman and manager for Christian radio station Spirit FM.
"Sometimes we read the law too legalistically. There's a spirit of the law and there's a practicality," Morris said. "The city should have to take a long hard look at themselves and ask, 'Are we doing what's best for the community?' "
Some near the proposed shelter are cheering the planners' decision. Homeowners in the East Gateway have long bemoaned their neighborhood's reputation as a stronghold of cheap motels, day-labor firms and social services, and have focused much of their anger at the 30-year-old soup kitchen.
Though the women's shelter's mission is noble, residents said, it could hurt the neighborhood's efforts to attract more business and development. At neighborhood meetings, some have suggested the soup kitchen move out and allow the shelter to move in — a social-service trade. The centers are run by different Catholic charities.
The soup kitchen "is like a cancer. It grows. It just keeps getting worse," said Julie Thompson, president of the East Gateway Business and Neighbors Association, who has lived near the neighborhood for 16 years. "It's a shame the soup kitchen is holding (the shelter) back."
City leaders have mostly supported the neighborhood's NIMBYism, saying more social services located there could cripple the East Gateway's image.
Mayor Frank Hibbard last month said the city would pay to build a new facility for the soup kitchen if it moved 9 miles away to Safe Harbor, the homeless shelter next to the Pinellas County Jail. Kitchen leaders declined the offer, saying it would hurt the local homeless and working poor.
And in an e-mail last month, City Manager Bill Horne warned the City Council that the board of the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, a shelter and day center that closed in May, was interested in leasing its empty building to another social service agency.
"This is exactly what we don't want to occur," Horne wrote. He told them the city's focus should be on moving the soup kitchen, and that he hoped to talk with CHIP leaders "to avoid yet another situation that (would) upset the East Gateway immensely."
The diocese, which also runs Pinellas Hope, the homeless "tent city" in Pinellas Park, offers pregnancy centers and adoption services in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
The Clearwater shelter would require women to work, volunteer or attend classes; would demand applications, background checks and drug tests; and would keep a strict curfew, allowing male visitors only in special circumstances.
The need for the shelter is critical, Morris said, as the charity and the nearby Kimberly Home pregnancy resource center receive a dozen calls a week from pregnant women in need.
He compared the city's code and stance to the biblical story of Joseph, Mary, and the Nativity of Jesus.
"They were looking for a place to stay, with Mary pregnant," Morris said. "They ended up in a manger, because they were turned away."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]