ST. PETERSBURG — As the city prepares to dole out $446,000 in grants to combat homelessness, one City Council member wants to widen the focus to allow groups aiding the elderly or youth to compete for money.
Wengay Newton said homelessness is important but already receives money from other sources in the city's $216 million dollar budget.
He would like nonprofits like Neighborly Care Network, which provides Meals on Wheels and other services to elderly clients, to be eligible for the grants, which can be as large as $40,000.
"I want them to open it up truly for social services,'' Newton said Thursday. "The vast majority may be homelessness, but you do have other services that people provide."
Until four or five years ago, Neighborly Care and others that didn't deal with homeless issues did receive grants, but rising concerns about the city's homeless problem during then-Mayor Bill Foster's administration narrowed the focus.
Cliff Smith, the city's veterans, social and homeless services manager, said he is following written guidelines about the distribution of grants that were in place when he took over the job last year. But those rules can be changed by the City Council or Mayor Rick Kriseman, he said.
Still, the pervasive homelessness in St. Petersburg far outpaces the capacity of the grants to address the problem. And homelessness involves so many other social ills, he said.
"Homelessness touches everything. They need help with food, with rent, with clothing, with child care," Smith said.
Over three hours Wednesday, the Social Services Allocation Committee whittled down requests from 22 agencies, which asked for $824,854 total, by more than $500,000.
The $323,000 in competitive grants are supplemented by another $123,000 in "essential" homelessness funding.
City Council member Charlie Gerdes, a member of the committee, said he understands Newton's concerns but thinks it might be too early to reduce funding for homelessness.
"We're not too far away from having a stable infrastructure and system in place where we can start going back and looking at other things. But, in the near time, we still have some work to do," Gerdes said.
Kriseman is open to discussing the issue but also believes the city should continue to focus on combating homelessness.
"He's open to learning about why the policy should change," said Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman. "But we're just around the corner from Williams Park. We can see the issues that homelessness brings."
A recent report by homelessness expert Robert Marbut, who advised Foster on homelessness issues, also plays a role in the mayor's thinking, Kirby said.
Marbut, who visited St. Petersburg in the spring, said the city's success in tackling homeless problems had slipped somewhat in recent years.
And a Tampa Bay Times analysis in June found the percentage of those identified as "transient" being booked in to the Pinellas County jail was on the rise.
Neighborly Care would love to see a change in policy. After losing the city grants a few years ago, the organization had to close some senior dining centers and make other cuts, said Mona Norindr, the nonprofit's human resources director.
"We need that money desperately," she said.
Problem is, there just isn't a lot of money to spread around. The City Council will consider the committee's grant recommendations in October.
As it stands, eight agencies that applied for the homeless grants didn't get a penny. And only one, Daystar Life Center Inc., received the full amount it requested: $40,000.
"We have limited dollars and such great need," Smith said.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago