ST. PETERSBURG — Every month, 150 women call the St. Petersburg Free Clinic seeking a safe shelter.
But the organization, which for years has operated a transitional housing program for women in crisis, has room for only 20.
Leaders hope that will change in the next few years. That's why this summer, the free clinic bought a plot of land near downtown, which it intends to turn into a shelter big enough to house twice as many women.
But there was one glitch.
The property, though cheap, was saddled with nearly $133,000 in fines from the city's codes department, which has had to maintain the vacant lot at 808 Fourth Ave. N.
"It was a giant hurdle," said free clinic executive director Beth Houghton. "Those fines were far in excess of the value of the property."
On Thursday, City Council members voted unanimously to forgive the debt on the property, which is adjacent to two homes the clinic already uses for housing the women.
Now clinic leaders can focus on the next phase of the project: building plans and raising money.
"We've wanted that property for years," Houghton said. "This is a big step forward."
According to documents the clinic submitted to the city, the new shelter will have 40 single rooms, 20 shared bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, several living areas and spaces for staff members.
Currently, women in the program stay in one of two side-by-side 1920s-era homes on the same block as the vacant lot. The plan is to tear those down and build one large structure. Officials estimate the project, dubbed "Saving Grace," will cost about $3 million. Construction is expected to begin in September 2015 and be completed by September 2016.
Officials hope to launch an official capital campaign within the year, Houghton said.
"The need is so great," Houghton said. "It's not just a housing program. It's support. It's life training. It's clothes for interviews. We're really successful in helping women return to independence. It's not a Band-Aid."
All of the women in the clinic's housing program are in a period of transition, Houghton said. Some are homeless, some have suffered trauma or were just released from jail. Most stay between six and nine months.
Stefini Kirkland has been there two weeks. The 37-year-old relapsed on prescription drugs two years ago when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack. A couple of months later, Kirkland was arrested for doctor shopping. She just completed rehab and is staying at one of the homes while she looks for a job. She wants to get home to her 15-year-old son soon.
"I need to do this as a stepping stone," she said Thursday. "It's safe. They're helpful and understanding of everybody's needs. I know a lot of girls who want to get in here. It would be really nice for them to be able to help more people."
Council members praised the project and said they were happy to waive the lien. The need will be great even with the new shelter, they said.
"We can sit there and do nothing, or we can provide a path forward," said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.
After approving the clinic's proposal, council members continued that theme, approving $446,000 in funding for local social service agencies — $20,000 more than what originally was going to be doled out.