CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County school district constantly needs bus drivers. And cafeteria workers. And a host of other entry level workers.
The city of Clearwater for years has struggled with homelessness. One of the major causes? A lack of affordable housing.
Together with the nonprofit Homeless Empowerment Program (HEP), the city and school district hope to make a dent in both problems.
The plan is for the city to donate a 1.3 acre parcel to the district, which will lease it and a long-vacant school property — both adjacent to the homeless program's campus — to the nonprofit for $1 per year.
The organization will use the land to build as many as 39 permanent housing units for homeless families, about doubling the number of families served by the nonprofit annually. In return, it will allow the school district to take over its adult education programs. In theory, homeless citizens could enter the nonprofit jobless and leave it with a skill set that the district itself badly desires.
Officials say it may be the first partnership of its kind in the nation: three organizations, including two government agencies, working together to solve common problems.
"I view this collaboration between the school board and HEP as a sea change in how we approach projects like this in our community," said Denise Sanderson, Clearwater's director of economic development and housing.
But a few obstacles remain. No formal agreement between the nonprofit or the school district has been approved, though it's in the works. Clearwater hasn't moved to donate its land yet. Even in a best-case scenario, groundbreaking on the new housing is still about a year away.
Ashley Lowery, president and CEO of the nonprofit, said her organization will need to raise over $5 million to get the apartments built. That will require a substantial fundraising campaign, she said.
Kate Tiedemann, a local philanthropist who sits on homeless program's board, said in an interview that she plans to support the project. Tiedemann, who has given millions to the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg in recent years, declined to give specifics.
Though the housing piece could take time, the school district could take over adult education and vocational training programs within 90 days of an agreement being signed, said spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason.
That would present a major step forward for both the nonprofit and the district. Although the homeless program already offers vocational training, Lowery said, it's mostly limited to training clients in computer skills.
The district will expand that and gain direct access to the nonprofit's clients.
Mark Hunt, head of career and technical education for Pinellas schools, says the district estimates enrolling 150 to 225 adult students in the program per year.
In total, Pinellas County had 7,570 homeless citizens, according to a recent survey. The school district said there were 3,632 homeless students during the 2018-2019 school year.
Those in the program who don't have a high school diploma would meet with an instructor who could help them determine whether to attend adult high school or obtain a GED. Then training on the nonprofit's campus would unfold over about seven weeks. During that time, the clients would get the full range of services, including a free dental check-up.
Students would talk with instructors about their interests and learn "soft skills," like how to interview, Hunt said. Once a client picks a career to pursue, they would get more in-depth training in basic math and technology skills.
Then the client could start at Pinellas Technical College, where all instructional and material costs would likely be covered by federal financial aid based on need, Hunt said. Transportation will be provided by the nonprofit.
Clint Herbic, associate superintendent for Pinellas schools, said the county wouldn't push clients toward any specific field. However, Pinellas Technical does offer training in areas of need for the district — grounds maintenance, food service, landscaping and bus driving — in addition to many other technical fields.
"We definitely would let them know that there are jobs here in Pinellas County schools that they could be in for a lifetime and retire and have benefits all along the way," Herbic said.
Pinellas Technical courses would last a minimum of four or five weeks, Hunt said. Then, some clients would ideally enter "apprenticeship-style" positions with the school district or the city of Clearwater.
"The city of Clearwater looks forward to receiving applications from the clients of HEP," said Jennifer Poirrier, the city's human resources director.
The idea is that the apprenticeships could turn into full-time jobs with benefits — positions that are often hard to come by for homeless people, Hunt said.
"The overriding cause of the homelessness in many cases is access to a career path that provides a living wage," he added. "All the things that typically stand in their way, this provides them solutions to all those obstacles."
The homeless program first approached the school district about buying the land with the vacant school a little over four years ago, founder Barbara Green said. But the property would have been too costly for the nonprofit to own and maintain outright.
The current proposal came together gradually after years of back and forth between the district and the nonprofit, Herbic said.
At this month's School Board workshop in Largo, nonprofit representatives watched district officials gush over the proposed three-way deal.
"This is a win-win situation," said board member Eileen Long, whose district includes he North Greenwood neighborhood where the nonprofit is located.
Kevin Hendrick, the district's head of academics, offered an effusive evaluation of a recent visit he took to the program's campus.
"I walked away from there almost feeling inadequate in terms of what I'm doing for humanity," Hendrick said.
Plus, there's another benefit to the partnership, Hendrick said: students at nearby Clearwater Intermediate could earn volunteer hours by working in the nonprofit's cafeteria or thrift store.
"We'll be kind of a pioneer in this," Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego said, adding that he wants to "move fast" on finalizing the partnership.
All seven board members expressed support.
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