In the next few days two St. Petersburg city staffers will journey to San Antonio, Texas, to check out a program for the homeless that has attracted nationwide attention. They, along with some other Pinellas officials who preceded them to San Antonio, wonder if the program could offer a solution to this county's challenging problems with a growing homeless population.
San Antonio's Haven for Hope is no tent city. Started in 2006, it has 15 buildings on 37 acres. It has half a million square feet of space under roofs. Some 1,600 people sleep there on any given night.
Calling itself a "homeless transformational campus," Haven for Hope has residence halls; detoxification facilities; medical, dental and vision care; a dining hall that serves three meals every day; educational facilities that provide a wide range of skills training; a child care center; a credit union; a barber shop; court and legal services; and even a kennel for clients' pets.
And it isn't run by government. It is a private, nonprofit venture that partners with 78 local agencies, organizations and faith-based groups. Its No. 1 goal: "Change the culture of warehousing (the homeless) to a culture of transformation."
Haven for Hope takes the long view, intending to address for each individual the complex issues that lead to homelessness and do it over the long term, until clients can support themselves and live normal lives.
The scope of San Antonio's problem with homelessness compelled that community to do something extraordinary, beyond the typical shelter or food bank. An estimated 2,500 people slept on the streets of San Antonio and surrounding Bexar County each night. So many of them were children that the average age of the homeless population was 9 years old. The community was spending more than $40 million a year just on jail and emergency medical services for the homeless.
A committee was created, and its members were dispatched across the country to gather information about other homelessness programs and make decisions about best practices. A key to success, they concluded, was putting all the services homeless people need in one place, hence the sprawling Haven for Hope facility that resembles a community college campus.
Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's Veteran, Social and Homeless Services manager, will visit San Antonio along with police Maj. Dede Carron, and they will invite representatives of Haven for Hope to come to St. Petersburg to explain what they did and how they did it. At a recent subcommittee meeting, St. Petersburg City Council members talked about their concerns that as local government revenues are declining, more of the burden for funding and dealing with Pinellas' homeless population may fall on the city, which has its own budget challenges.
St. Petersburg has struggled to find effective ways to serve the homeless, and officials are frustrated that there are still problems.
An example of those difficulties and the city's annoyance surfaced at the same subcommittee meeting. While discussing how to distribute the city's $426,000 in social action funds next fiscal year, council members showed their frustration with one of the agencies that gets city dollars, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Large numbers of homeless people congregate on the grounds of the nonprofit on 15th Street and sleep there or in cars parked nearby, creating noise, litter and suspicion of drug and alcohol use.
"Quite frankly, I wouldn't give them anything until they clean up," said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, adding that homeowners are moving away because of the problem. St. Vincent de Paul and city police have been pointing fingers at each other, each claiming the other is more to blame for the size of the problem.
Clarence Scott, the city's Leisure and Community Services administrator, said city staff members have huddled with St. Vincent de Paul to find ways to deal with the issue, which he called "an eyesore to everyone." He suggested they may have solutions in 30 to 60 days.
By then, the city staff will have gotten eyes on San Antonio's Haven for Hope, which may offer some hope for Pinellas County, too.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.