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Pinellas interfaith group cheers progress in high-crime neighborhoods

LARGO — Neighborhood drug and crime activity is down in some communities, affordable housing is under way throughout the county and discipline in area public schools is on the rise.

That was the message to 700 people representing more than 30 congregations from Safety Harbor to St. Petersburg on Monday night at the annual meeting of a countywide interfaith organization at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Largo.

For the past five years, FAST, or Faith and Action for Strength Together, has worked to reduce neighborhood drugs and crime, create affordable housing and put discipline back in public schools.

Last spring, FAST congregations began what they called a hot spot campaign in which residents filled out anonymous cards to report the worst neighborhood areas of drug and crime activity.

Since April, more than 60 drug and crime areas have been cleaned up, reported the Rev. James Feazell, assistant pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo.

Since June, there have been 33 drug-related arrests in Clearwater, 11 in St. Petersburg and 14 in the unincorporated county.

The work continues.

"We know that some of the hot spots are stubborn areas and it will take persistence and vigilance on the part of the citizens to see these areas cleaned up," said the Rev. Mason Dorsey, pastor of Riviera United Methodist Church of St. Petersburg and co-chair of the FAST drugs and crime committee.

The Rev. William Sherman, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Clearwater and co-chair of the drugs and crime committee, said the organization is also concerned about reducing the revolving door at the county jail. Between 50 and 60 percent of jail inmates are repeat offenders, he said.

"We want to look into the problem of recidivism and find out what repeat offenders need in order to stay out of jail," Sherman said.

The need for affordable housing is critical, said Donna Davis, a leader at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Clearwater.

In 2005, FAST asked the County Commission to create a trust fund that would provide some 3,000 units of affordable housing in the county. The fund now totals more than $19-million and, to date, 700 units have been created with the money.

"These 3,000 units only address 10 percent of the need for affordable housing in the county," said Rev. Willie McClendon, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo. "We haven't finished addressing that 10 percent yet. We still have a long way to go."

Discipline is a major problem in public schools, said Terry Morris of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. In some schools, 15 to 20 percent of the children are being suspended, he said. In the first semester of the 2007-08 school year, 4,093 high school and middle school students were suspended.

Because of FAST's work, 37 public schools have implemented schoolwide discipline programs. Twenty-three of the schools are part of a pilot program in which disciplinary referrals decreased, he said.

The Rev. Clarence Williams of Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg said the organization has made progress beyond what many thought was possible.

"They said that you couldn't get Baptists and AMEs (African Methodist Episcopal) to work together, let alone Baptists and AMEs and Catholics and Presbyterian and Episcopalians and Jews all working together.

"They said you couldn't ask political leaders clear questions and demand straightforward answers about what they were or were not going to do. But, you know what, we did it."

FAST offices

FAST, or Faith and Action for Strength Together, has two offices in the county:

• North County, 1676 S Belcher Road, Clearwater. Call (727) 524-3303.

• South County, 1310 22nd Ave. S,, St. Petersburg. Call (727) 823-9197.

Pinellas interfaith group cheers progress in high-crime neighborhoods 10/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 9:49pm]

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