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St. Vincent de Paul homeless outreach programs grow, but not without challenges

ST. PETERSBURG — Michael Raposa was ecstatic when the news he'd known for weeks was made official.

St. Vincent de Paul, the agency he leads, was getting another $6 million to help homeless and at-risk veterans, bringing the total amount of federal grants the agency will receive this year to $9 million. Though the largest sum, it's not the only government funding the agency will get in coming months.

St. Petersburg's new budget allocates $250,565 to the charity, nearly twice as much as last year. A big chunk of the increase will go to offering an indoor resting area for homeless people around the clock.

The organization also could get up to $390,000 from the Juvenile Welfare Board to temporarily shelter homeless families.

The expansion of services and influx of public money to a charity best known for feeding the poor appear to coincide with Raposa's hiring in 2011. St. Vincent de Paul has grown 400 percent during that period, he said.

"Collaboration was my No. 1 priority coming in and it's really opened up a few doors and windows along the way," he said. "Anything that we saw that we could do, that we could realistically do, we stepped up and said we'd try it."

As a result, his staff of about 45 will almost double this year. And the St. Petersburg-based organization is now set to open a Tampa office to serve Hillsborough veterans. The new site will join a New Port Richey office.

Growth has not come without challenges. Not everyone has understood the need to upgrade the organization's technology, Raposa said, adding that there were only four computers when he arrived.

Raposa also had to fire the organization's thrift store general manager. In August, Jose E. Negrete Garcia pleaded guilty to stealing about $10,000. Court documents indicate that he has made restitution for the theft.

And a few days ago, the City Council was asked to authorize an agreement to let St. Vincent de Paul borrow $500,000 from BB&T Bank to stucco and paint its facility and help with accounts receivables in case grant money arrives late. The bank would collect what it is owed ahead of the city if there's a foreclosure.

Joshua Johnson, the city's director of housing and community development, said that 14 years ago, the city gave St. Vincent de Paul a deferred loan for $948,000 to rehabilitate the former hospital it now occupies. The agency has to continue to provide services until 2032, at which point the loan would be satisfied, he said.

"Looking at the property appraiser's website, they have enough equity in the building to satisfy the outstanding loans," Johnson said.

Though expanding, St. Vincent de Paul has been forced to cut back on breakfast in its soup kitchen, a decision blamed on the closing of Sweetbay supermarkets, a major donor, more than a year ago. Serving 17,500 hot meals a month, the kitchen now offers breakfast only on Sundays. Raposa wants to fix that and more.

"Even having been blessed with all of this growth and all of these opportunities, the demand and the need continues to grow," he said.

"St. Vincent's plans to provide at least 500 turkey baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas to the neighborhood families in need, 300 showers a week for the homeless on the street and make certain that 35-plus children that will be in the shelter on Christmas Day will see Santa Claus."

Raposa said he couldn't refuse when Robert Marbut, a consultant hired by the city to help solve the homeless problem, asked if the charity would expand its nighttime program to help keep people off the streets during the day.

The new 24-hour, year-round program, began recently. It is funded by the city, which added $75,565 to the $45,000 it already was providing for the nighttime shelter.

Cliff Smith, the city's manager of veterans, social and homeless services, called it a "substantial investment" to address homelessness. "We want them to stay there, because there are showers and case managers," he said. "We are trying to help them get back on their feet."

Council member Karl Nurse is less optimistic. "I don't have reason to think that the problem is going to go away," he said. "This is a matter of how do you mitigate the negative impact and get those we can back into a normal life. And frankly, the alternative is to continue this cycle of arrest and release, which doesn't work."

Marbut also recommended a program to serve the increasing number of homeless families, which St. Vincent de Paul took on in the spring.

"We've been averaging 23 days," Raposa said of the families' stay at St. Vincent de Paul's Center of Hope. JWB pays $51 a day for room and board for each family, he said.

In addition to the $9 million the charity received this year from the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans — $6 million will be used over three years — it got $1.5 million last year and $1 million the previous year.

"Basically, we have been very, very successful in our program here in Pinellas County," said Raposa, who was invited to meet VA secretary Robert McDonald during the recent visit he made to the area.

Raposa said St. Vincent de Paul has helped 831 veterans' households since 2012, 130 with dependents. His goal is to help more than 1,200 this year, he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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