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Nonprofit eyes vacant St. Petersburg school for homeless teen shelter

Published Aug. 9, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A Tampa nonprofit that works with homeless teens want to open a "minicampus" in north St. Petersburg, complete with boys and girls dormitories, a dining hall, offices and tutoring space.

But the City Council, led by member Darden Rice, has put the brakes on the group's plan to lease an unused school building at 4600 Haines Road. Rice said the last-minute addition of a zoning change for the property on Thursday's meeting agenda took her by surprise.

She wants more time to learn about the nonprofit, called Starting Right, Now and consult residents in her district. She asked to defer a vote until Aug. 21.

"It's unfortunate that it was rushed. … It puts us in an awkward position of it appearing like it's a NIMBY issue," Rice said.

Rice has some questions about the nonprofit, formed in 2008. A Tampa Bay Times story last year detailed how the group sued two former homeless teenagers for thousands of dollars in costs after they left the program. After the stories, the group amended its policy to collect no more than $2,000 from teens who leave.

Rice said the practice was a "head-scratcher," but didn't consider it a "fatal flaw."

"I'd be curious to find out what's happened since that time," she said.

Founder Vicki Sokolik said her organization only sued two participants after exhausting every other avenue of redress. She said her group broached the subject of a local campus with Pinellas County School District officials, who didn't raise objections.

"It was really a nonissue," Sokolik said.

The nonprofit wants to turn the old Harris TIPS school into same-sex dormitories that would house 50 teens. That's about double the housing provided to teens in Hillsborough County, she said.

There are about 135 young people in the program there, she said, who work with mentors daily. Not all of them are homeless, some are runaways or have left home for other reasons.

The program also offers tutoring and other wrap-around services. She said 95 percent of participants graduate from high school.

Board members include such local dignitaries as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman.

"We've been asked by several people to take it across the state," Sokolik said.

The proposed facility would have a full-time house manager who would sleep on site. Security would be present when the manager is off-duty, Sokolik said.

Sokolik plans to explain the benefits of the program to council members on Aug. 21. She wasn't surprised the council wanted more information.

"I'm not sure council had time to digest who we are or what we're doing," she said.

School district officials see the potential for a "beautiful partnership," said Lori Matway, associate superintendent for student and community services.

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Pinellas County has about 3,000 homeless youth, she said, and a boarded-up school doesn't benefit anyone. The district closed the school for teen parents in 2011 to save money.

The district would like to lease the property, just less than 6 acres, to the nonprofit for a nominal sum with a clause that it could take it back if needed.

The council first must approve its rezoning from school to residential, Matway said.

"There is definitely a need," she said. " Our hope is that all children have a safe place to go home to with caring adults. It's a small chip, but every little bit helps."

Contact Charlie Frago at or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago


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