Tarpon Springs lends homeless a hand

Published April 12, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - As some homeless have drifted out of more urban areas and into the far reaches of Pinellas County, smaller communities have to confront a population most associated with big cities.

Some, like Tarpon Springs, are hoping to take a proactive approach.

The city's leaders are "not waiting for it to get to tent slashing," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, referring to the infamous standoff between St. Petersburg police and residents of "Tent City" in January. "They're quietly making progress."

Wednesday, several leaders from key organizations - the Salvation Army, the Shepherd Center, St. Timothy's Lutheran Church - met with Snyder and Mayor Beverley Billiris to discuss building a homeless shelter or day-use center in the city.

Tom Henderson, a congregation member at St. Timothy's, organized the collaboration. The church has contributed land for a branch of Community Health Centers of Pinellas and intended to raise money for a day-use center for the homeless as well.

But Henderson said congregation members realized the substantial sums needed for such a project, which would include amenities such as showers, lockers, a free telephone and post office boxes. So they decided to get help.

After Wednesday's meeting, community leaders are trying to determine what exactly the homeless of Tarpon Springs need - and thus, what should be built.

Among the options: a day-use center, a shelter and a "one-stop" center for community services. Committee members hope to build one - or a combination of the choices - on property the Shepherd Center owns that is adjacent to the planned Community Health Center.

Participants said they will spend the next month assessing local needs before meeting again in May to decide the next course of action, including possibly incorporating as a body specifically addressing homelessness.

"If we build a 10-story building and don't know what to put in it or what the needs are," Henderson said, "we're chasing our tail."

Elena Lesley can be reached at 727 445-4167 or elesley@sptimes.com.