A class of undergraduates at the Art Institute of Tampa has been handed a challenge: Make Pinellas residents care about the homeless.
The students have been asked to design a public awareness campaign that would debut in September and show the many faces of homelessness, departing from the stereotypical image of the chronically homeless man who is forever asking for change. It is intended as the first step toward a push to raise more private money for Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County's largest homeless shelter.
Opened in January 2011 as an alternative to jailing homeless people for minor offenses, the shelter has been hailed as a success by law enforcement and government officials. In its first year, it served almost 400 people a day. Churches donated meals, nonprofit groups donated their employees' time, and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office paid for almost everything else.
So far this year, the shelter has received $13,100 in outside contributions from six donors. To try to boost that number, Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, and the county's Homeless Leadership Board have enlisted students to create an educational campaign.
"We're hoping that starting out with the informational or educational piece, that in turn will lead us down the path of creating public awareness, which then leads to funding," Clifford said.
He said that too often, people associate homelessness with the men and women they encounter who have been panhandling for years — known as the chronically homeless — who in some cases resist efforts to find them shelter. The campaign will highlight the fact that many of Pinellas' homeless are veterans, who account for at least 16 percent of Safe Harbor's population, as well as families.
Some businesses have contributed to Safe Harbor. In 2011, Progress Energy wrote the shelter a check for $50,000. In 2012, Blue Cross Blue Shield gave $10,000. But most have been in-kind donations. For example, Clifford said, a cable company is working on an agreement to give shelter residents access to free Wi-Fi to help them in applying for jobs.
Safe Harbor has a budget of roughly $2.4 million, 72 percent of which comes from the Sheriff's Office.
St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the cities that sent the largest number of people to the shelter in 2012, each contributed $100,000. Pinellas Park gave $60,000.
But only eight of the county's 24 municipalities have donated to Safe Harbor. Largo, which 1,059 Safe Harbor residents gave as their city of origin last year, has not given money. Dunedin sent 174 people there but also doesn't pay.
Although the student-designed ads will direct people to donate to Safe Harbor, Clifford said the campaign could benefit other groups that help the homeless. If it's successful in Pinellas, it could eventually be taken statewide, he said.
"The private sector, the average citizens and business owners, are all affected by this issue," he said. "This is sort of a new attempt to reach them."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.