Leonard Ferrara has gained more than 10 pounds since he moved to the Pinellas Hope outdoor shelter nearly five months ago.
But he still hasn't found a job or a place to call home.
Government and business leaders hail Pinellas Hope as an innovative, low-cost answer to the area's growing homeless problem. They have rallied to extend the program for five extra months and are considering whether to set up a similar shelter in Hillsborough County. But five months after Pinellas Hope opened, it is unclear whether the program is succeeding.
Nearly 490 people have stayed at the shelter since it opened on Dec. 1.
Of those, 122 found employment and 148 found housing. Fewer than 100 people remain. More than 200 homeless residents, or about 41 percent, are unaccounted for, and shelter staffers think some have returned to the streets.
Catholic Charities Diocese, which owns and operates Pinellas Hope, has tapped the University of South Florida St. Petersburg to study the shelter and its residents, but that report won't be complete until at least June. The city staff drafted an interim report last week that called the shelter a hit.
Critics argue that the tent city is a waste of money and that government leaders should promote affordable housing instead.
"Pinellas Hope has cost a lot of money for a very Band-Aid type of program," said the Rev. Philip Miller-Evans, who leads the American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes and is a national homeless advocate. "It is a question of what the need is and whether we were effectively addressing that need."
Despite the shelter's debatable success rate, Catholic Charities announced this week it would keep a scaled-down version of Pinellas Hope open until Sept. 30. The shelter was originally scheduled to close today, but business leaders raised nearly $200,000 to extend it.
Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, said Pinellas Hope's mission is to help people who want to help themselves.
"If someone is at Pinellas Hope and they are not putting together a plan to really make that next step, we really can't help them," Murphy said. "It's their decision."
The shelter will serve 50 to 75 people through September, he said.
The tent city is a far cry from the solution promised in 2007, after dozens of homeless people set up a makeshift campground downtown. City leaders banned the tents and promised a permanent shelter. Those plans have been delayed because of statewide budget cuts.
Local shelters say Pinellas Hope has not relieved the demand for services.
"We have been at capacity, which is 63 people, almost every night," said Patricia Waltrich, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul shelter on 15th Street N. "We still have a very good crowd at all of our meals."
Ferrara, 54, said Pinellas Hope has given him a place to stay, employment advice and food. But he worries the shelter will kick him out soon if he doesn't find a job. He said his doctor told him he needs vascular surgery on his left leg before he can work or go to school.
"If I wasn't here, I would be back on the streets," he said. "I would probably be arrested for panhandling."
Murphy said that this week the shelter plans to turn away nearly 30 homeless people who show no signs of progress. Homeless people who want to get their lives together tend to look for jobs every day or sign up for a vocational or rehabilitation program, he said.
That's what Lynne Buettgenbach, 53, did during her short stay at Pinellas Hope. She and her son's father stayed there in December for a few weeks, found jobs and saved money. They left their 11-year-old son with family friends as they tried to get back on their feet. Children cannot sleep at Pinellas Hope.
The family became homeless after Buettgenbach grew ill and was temporarily unable to work in December.
Catholic Charities gave the family money to cover the security deposit and to turn on the utilities when they moved to a new apartment in southern St. Petersburg around Christmas. Now, Buettgenbach said, her family is reunited and secure.
"I'm very grateful that I was there," she said. "You have all the opportunities in the world as long as you use them."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the numbers
484 total number of residents
122 have found employment
148 have found housing
252have received medical care
$1.3M cost of original five-month program.