St. Petersburg officials looked all the way to Texas for an expert to tell the city and county how to address the problems of a growing homeless population. They reached out to Haven for Hope, a 37-acre, $116 million complex serving the homeless near San Antonio, and hired its founding president as an adviser at a cost of $5,300 a month for eight months.
But they could have looked to a successful model much closer to home.
The Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater has been caring for the county's homeless and troubled for more than 30 years. It's been around so long and conducts its business with such quiet competence that it sometimes isn't noticed — even now, when Tampa Bay area cities and counties are struggling with mushrooming homeless populations.
There may be no better source of advice and inspiration about dealing with the local homeless population than HEP president and chief executive Barbara Green, her extended family, and the legions of volunteers and benefactors who have helped grow HEP into a successful model of compassionate care for the homeless. HEP doesn't warehouse the homeless; it tries to cure the problems that lead to homelessness.
The nonprofit stretches over five blocks in north Clearwater and also owns 20 houses nearby. The spotless, well-landscaped campus includes emergency shelters, apartments for transitional and permanent housing, a dental clinic, dining hall, after-school center for some of the 60 children living at HEP, community center, thrift store, bicycle repair shop, medical facilities and offices for about 30 caseworkers.
With a capacity of 310 residents, HEP is almost always full. That's partly because HEP doesn't shy from tackling tough cases. It takes families homeless because of job loss, single mothers abandoned by their male partners, chronic street homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally ill, and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Clients get a caseworker and treatment plan, clean living quarters, good food and a bicycle to get around. Everyone works, either at a job or as a volunteer.
Green, 69, and her late husband, the Rev. Otis Green, started small, with one family that belonged to their little church in Clearwater, Everybody's Tabernacle. The family of five had lost their home because the father had been hurt on the job and couldn't work. The Rev. Green, a contractor and pastor, moved them into a house he owned. Soon, others needed assistance. For the Greens, helping the needy became their life's work.
They didn't judge people who had nothing or had made poor decisions in life, perhaps because neither had a privileged background. Pastor Green grew up in a house by the railroad tracks in Largo; his mother often fed transients at their back door. Barbara McAbee Green was raised on an Alabama farm, one of 12 children who picked cotton and traveled the Southeast as a musical group called Abundant Life. Her family moved to Florida in 1959 and she met and married Otis Green a couple of decades later. She oversaw the church's outreach work with the homeless until the Homeless Emergency Project was officially incorporated with her as president in 1986.
Green is in charge, but it isn't a solo performance. Members of the extended McAbee and Green families have roles throughout the enterprise. The chairman of the board is her brother-in-law, Bruce Fyfe, a financial planner and former member of the Morton Plant Hospital board.
Fyfe has worked to bring more organizational sophistication to HEP, has attracted well-heeled donors, and has promoted expansion so HEP can serve more of the never-ending stream of people who need help. He is particularly eager to expand HEP's work with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who are returning with crippling physical and emotional problems. Fyfe's son, Brendan, served several tours of duty in Iraq and came home changed, Fyfe said. He later died of a drug overdose. Early next year HEP hopes to break ground on two new facilities for female and male veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
HEP's revenue comes from donations, local governments, agencies such as the Veterans Administration, grants, and payments from clients who, if they have a job, must give 30 percent of their income to HEP.
It was only this fall that HEP developed a system to formally measure its success. It discharged 55 clients in September. Of those, 81 percent went to better circumstances, Fyfe said. Nineteen percent went back to the streets. Many of HEP's former residents, including children, come back to help as volunteers.
San Antonio's Haven for Hope, which started in 2006, can boast of many accomplishments, but HEP has a 30-year history, its own record of local success, and a model that probably better fits Pinellas' needs and finances. If St. Petersburg or other cities want advice on how to really help the homeless, they should consider what's offered outside their own back door.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the Clearwater & North Pinellas Times.