CLEARWATER — A city initiative to discourage donations to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen seems to have backfired, with supporters sounding a rallying cry for donations and city leaders backing off in pursuit of other ideas.
In a meeting last month with homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, City Manager Bill Horne wrote that urging donors to stop contributing to the 30-year-old soup kitchen could help the city consolidate homeless services outside city limits.
But after backlash over what some called an overbearing attempt to sever the kitchen's supply lines, Horne said officials will focus on less sensitive steps toward what he has called "the most comprehensive city response to homeless issues" in history.
"It's hard for people to understand what the overall goal is, and they get fixated on some of the short-term measures," Horne said. On discouraging donations, he added: "There are so many other things we want to accomplish within the next 90 days, and I can tell you that is not one of them."
The idea was only one of many, Horne said, and officials have placed higher priority on actions like increasing police and counselor patrols for people living on the street.
But local homeless advocates said it was only the city's most recent slight against the soup kitchen, long portrayed as a source for neighborhood strife in the East Gateway district next to downtown.
"Without a doubt, (St. Vincent de Paul) feels like the city's trying to do them in," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which runs the Pinellas Hope homeless shelter.
"They're feeling pretty picked on, like all the sudden they're the source of all the problems. We need a lot more dialogue besides, 'Let's force the soup kitchen to close.' "
Marbut and city leaders say that without services like addiction counseling or job placement, the soup kitchen's meals for men, women and children will only serve to enable more living on the street. Officials have pressed to shift the meals to Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's adults-only homeless shelter next to the county jail.
"We're trying to help these people be more than just homeless," Mayor George Cretekos said. "We're trying to get people to understand that we can feed and feed and feed, but that doesn't necessarily help them become independent."
But kitchen volunteers contend that shifting meals for the hungry to a shelter 8 miles away would devastate the 200 guests a day who are homeless or working poor.
Others added that the soup kitchen once had many of those services just a few steps away, at the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, which closed last year after its city funding froze.
The city and the soup kitchen have "agreed to disagree," Cretekos said, on the kitchen's inner workings, including when it serves its meals. The mayor thinks the 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. opening gives diners little incentive to seek helpful day-long programs. In a letter, he recommended limiting meals to between 7 and 8 a.m.
But Kris DiGiovanni, the kitchen's executive director, said volunteer cooks already start preparing food as early as 5:30 a.m. More than breakfast, the plates of meat, starches, fruits and vegetables are designed for those who may only get one meal a day.
Kitchen leaders say donations have continued to flow into the kitchen at 1345 Park St., including more than 250 pounds of canned and nonperishable food on Monday alone.
Donors include grocery stores, churches, fast-food restaurants and local homeowners, including a Palm Harbor couple who have donated regularly for more than 20 years.
Cyntthia Sterba, a mother of eight who lived at CHIP for a year before buying her own home, started an online petition demanding the city leave the soup kitchen alone, calling the kitchen a life-saving influence for her and some on the street.
The soup kitchen, she said, offered hot meals, a safe haven and a place to socialize — "something to make you feel normal."
"St. Vincent de Paul is a place of hope, not just a plate of food," Sterba said. "It was a place that gave me hope when I had none, none at all."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.