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PINELLAS HOPE DESERVES SUPPORT

Catholic Charities breaks ground today on a transitional apartment building at Pinellas Hope, the so-called "tent city" for the homeless in Pinellas County. It is a big step forward, and the future should look secure for this progressive project that has helped so many. Now the Pinellas County Commission, when it approves the county budget on Tuesday, needs to provide the dedicated dollars to make sure Pinellas Hope's success continues in the new fiscal year. To do less could shutter the project, amounting to a huge step backward.

When the idea of a tent encampment for the homeless was conceived two years ago, the Pinellas homeless population was swelling and resident complaints and clashes with police were increasing. Homeless camps had sprung up in woods and under bridges, public sidewalks had become home sites and bathrooms for people with nowhere else to go, and panhandling was increasing.

A tent encampment seemed the best immediate answer to provide safe and sanitary shelter. Pinellas Hope was launched in late 2007 by key partners Catholic Charities, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, the city of St. Petersburg and retired businessman Harry Stonecipher. The Catholic Diocese offered 10 acres of wooded land near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The other partners provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the encampment and set up the social services that would be provided to homeless people who chose to go there. Catholic Charities took the lead in operating the facility and raising funds from private donors.

This year Pinellas County budgeted $770,000 toward the $2.5 million cost of running Pinellas Hope, where 250 people are housed in tents and small buildings called casitas. But faced with a major budget shortfall because of the recession, county commissioners have not dedicated the same amount of money to the project for 2010. Instead, the commission set aside $1 million for homeless initiatives and said that all providers of homeless services could compete for the money. Seventeen providers have submitted applications totaling more than $1.8 million, including Pinellas Hope's request for $600,000. Catholic Charities' Frank Murphy warned this week that without the county's contribution, the organization will have to close Pinellas Hope.

St. Petersburg has not wavered in its support of Pinellas Hope. It contributed $250,000 this year and is budgeting the same amount for next year, even though city revenues are down. St. Petersburg officials consider Pinellas Hope that important, especially with so many people suffering in the current economy and the ranks of the homeless still growing.

Two years ago, organizers of Pinellas Hope admitted they had no idea whether the project would succeed or fail. The answer is apparent now. Pinellas Hope has provided food and shelter to hundreds of homeless men and women. It has offered a pathway to a more stable and productive life for those who want it. The complex of 80 transitional apartments that will be built there is a testament to that.

Pinellas County and St. Petersburg in particular still have issues with the homeless, despite the success of Pinellas Hope. For the county to reduce its funding now would be a step backward and jeopardize the progress that has been made. Pinellas Hope needs the security of dedicated funding from Pinellas County to continue its successful humanitarian mission.

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