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Nationally criticized for razing an illegal homeless camp nearly two years ago, the area is now tops when it comes to efforts to ease the plight of the homeless, the nation's top official on homelessness said Wednesday.

"This city has gone from the back of the pack," said Phillip Mangano, executive director for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "They are now in the front of the pack, getting things done."

Mangano heralded Pinellas Hope - an outdoor camplike shelter put together by city, county and private groups after the tent-slashing city scandal - as a national model.

Catholic Charities, which operates the shelter at 5726 126th Ave. N, recently received $4-million in local and state funding to construct 50 efficiency apartments with 80 beds adjacent to the tent city. That building should be open by late 2009, said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities also is building 100 temporary wood homes, which won't have electricity or plumbing, but will protect residents from wind and rain. Catholic Charities needs to raise $1,000 per home to complete the project, Murphy said.

Advocates for the homeless widely criticized the tent city when it first opened in December 2007 and accused local officials of going back on their promise to open more permanent shelters. They now support it.

Since it opened, Pinellas Hope has served more than 720 homeless people at a cost of $12.14 per resident per day. At least 340 residents eventually found permanent housing or were placed in some kind of treatment program, Murphy said.

Residents said they enjoyed living at Pinellas Hope because they felt cared about, according to a University of South Florida report released this week.

Despite the shelter's success, Mayor Rick Baker said there was still more work to be done. "As a community, we have a moral obligation to keep the homeless off the street," he said.