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St. Petersburg officials consider new approach to homeless problem

ST. PETERSBURG — Tired of what they call long-term solutions that provide no relief to current homeless conditions, city officials are proposing a radical concept that has already been tried in Texas.

In San Antonio, they call it Haven for Hope, a 37-acre campus on the edge of downtown with 17 buildings devoted to helping homeless people better prepare for jobs. It cost $117 million, but according to its founding president and CEO, it's the best approach because it is comprehensive and strategic.

"Scale it to your community," said Robert Marbut, who spoke last week at a workshop attended by more than 80 officials from throughout Pinellas County. "I'm not saying what worked for us will work for you."

It may not require a large-scale campus like the one in San Antonio, Marbut said. But what Haven for Hope does require is cooperation among all the agencies that deal with homelessness — a perennial trouble spot among city and county officials.

It's not just the consolidation of resources that is necessary, he said, but a deliberate approach in providing services.

Haven for Hope is a one-stop shopping approach that attempts to change behavior. Rewards, such as hot meals and better beds, are given to those who make the most progress.

For instance, when those in need first come to the campus, they sleep in a courtyard. As they consult with Haven for Hope advisers about finding jobs and solving problems in their life, they are evaluated on how well they are advancing to becoming more self-reliant.

If they make progress, they get better sleeping quarters, from mats in the courtyard to bunk beds in dorm rooms to thicker mattresses in single rooms to, the final step, off-campus housing. The better the behavior, the better the bed.

Same with food. Hot meals come for those who merit them, Marbut said. "Most shelter systems treat everyone the same," Marbut said. "We don't. It's very important to have consequences. It's very important to have rewards."

Such conditioning is lauded by City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who visited San Antonio twice last year to study Haven for Hope. She was so impressed by its comprehensiveness that she organized last week's workshop where Marbut spoke.

Mayor Bill Foster supported Curran in setting up the workshop and also supports the Haven for Hope concept. Foster has been eyeing land on 49th Street, where an old Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority building was most recently used as a county jail annex. It has since been closed due to budget cuts. It's miles from the beach and the downtown areas where the homeless traditionally congregate.

Whatever the city decides to do will require the county's cooperation, Foster said.

But county officials, who already pay for the largest share of the government spending on Pinellas Hope — a charity-run tent city — are skeptical of the costs to run a San Antonio-style site.

"It basically comes down to funding," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "Not too far away from (the closed jail annex) is Pinellas Hope, which we created in large part due to the request of the city of St. Petersburg, and we're struggling to fund it."

More than 60 percent of people admitted to Pinellas Hope come from St. Petersburg.

"If you're talking about another facility to mainly address a St. Petersburg problem, there are going to be questions," Welch said.

Assistant County Administrator Elithia Stanfield said he had some good insights, but wondered how much of what was done in San Antonio could be duplicated.

"It's an entirely different environment," Stanfield said. "They're on 37 acres. Where are our 37 acres of free land in Pinellas County?"

It would cost $500,000 to reopen the PSTA building, said County Administrator Bob LaSala. He questioned the practicality of opening a shelter near a jail.

"And St. Petersburg's thoughts are, whatever they do, they're totally funding themselves?" said Commissioner Susan Latvala, with a laugh at a recent meeting.

Curran said she knows what the answer isn't: maintaining the status quo. "I don't want another task force," she said at the workshop. "The show of attendance today definitely sent the message to me that we need to move forward."

Marbut said Pinellas is closer than officials may think. He spent about 60 hours touring the social service agencies that provide help.

"I don't think you need the size of Haven for Hope," Marbut said. "You already have the pieces. You just need to integrate them."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg officials consider new approach to homeless problem 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 4:43pm]
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