Property owners in and around downtown Clearwater may face a stark choice: either stop complaining about homeless people wandering around downtown, or put up some money to provide for their care.
There may be no other alternative, because the donations that allowed nonprofit groups to provide food and shelter for the homeless are drying up, and government revenue, also in decline, is not sufficient to fill the gap.
This reduction in funding has led to a dire situation at the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project Inc., known as CHIP, according to police Chief Sid Klein, who was instrumental in getting the CHIP center opened in 1998. Klein told the Clearwater City Council that the CHIP board of directors has authorized the executive director to lay off staff and close CHIP's day center. That would mean 80 to 100 homeless people now served there would have no place to go during the daytime.
Klein asked for and received City Council approval to donate $100,000 from the Police Department's contraband forfeiture fund to CHIP. But even after that donation, CHIP will have a budget shortfall of $119,000 for its day program, he said. And there is no other day program in the downtown area that serves single adult males who are homeless, Klein said.
The CHIP center grew out of the frustration of police and other local officials who kept getting complaints about the homeless from downtown property owners but had no way to solve the problem other than putting homeless people in jail, where their needs could not be addressed.
CHIP's day center provides a place for homeless people to get a meal, toiletries, clothes, counseling and an assessment of their situation and what it would take to fix it. In the last year the day center served more than 2,500 males and 725 females.
For those clients willing to work and abide by CHIP's rules, there is a shelter where they can sleep in clean and safe surroundings at night and get help with their problems from trained professionals. Eventually, they may even qualify to live in CHIP's transitional apartment complex.
For Klein, who spent years building support for the CHIP program before the center finally opened in 1998, the potential loss of the day program, just when the center finally offered a full continuum of care, must be especially difficult. Not only will a needy population go unserved, the homeless people now occupied at the day center likely will be back on the streets begging for handouts and sleeping on sidewalks.
"Do we need to look for a new partner?" Mayor Frank Hibbard asked Klein at the City Council's Nov. 3 work session. Been there, done that, Klein answered. No partners have stepped up.
Council member Carlen Petersen, who is involved with several nonprofit groups in the area, said the problem is that other nonprofits are struggling for money just like CHIP. High insurance rates, along with reductions in donations, have driven some to lay off employees, she said. She called the rise in numbers of needy people "frightening."
Council member John Doran noted that in St. Petersburg, which had well-publicized problems with a substantial homeless population, downtown businesses contributed money to help address the situation. He hasn't seen that kind of willingness in downtown Clearwater, "but maybe they've never been asked," he said. It appears they are being asked now.
The homeless problem is only going to get worse, and downtown Clearwater is likely to remain its epicenter. If money can't be found to provide food, shelter and other services to the population, then the city is forced "to use its police force like a giant leaf blower,'' Doran said, moving homeless people from place to place as property owners complain.
That's no solution. The effort that resulted in the CHIP center began with the creation of a task force to figure out what kind of programming would help the homeless. Perhaps it is time to convene such a group again, this time with a focus on finding a funding solution.