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A new homeless plan

Though some ministers mince no words about it, churches and county officials try to hatch ...

By CRISTINA SILVA and WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published July 18, 2007


A line forms as Pastor Larry Sann (left) of the St. Petersburg Dream Center passes out food, water and coffee from his minivan in the City Hall parking lot.
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[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
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[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Pastor Larry Sann (left) has been feeding the homeless the City Hall parking lot for the last year and a half and has been feeding the homeless in different parts of St. Petersburg for the last 11 years.

ST. PETERSBURG - Homeless advocates, church leaders and local governments are trying to set up an interfaith program to provide temporary winter shelter for the homeless.

The effort, which is still in the planning stages, would provide temporary relief to the area's estimated 4,400 homeless people at a time when funding to many local social services organizations has been reduced because of state-mandated tax cuts.

Part of an ongoing combined effort by county officials and faith leaders to solve the homeless problem, the initiative has been hailed by local government officials as a cost-effective solution - if they can get enough local religious institutions on board.

"It's a tall order and it is a big commitment from churches because it is volunteers who would be running this," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett, who heads the Homeless Leadership Network, composed of representatives of the county, its cities, businesses and social advocates.

However, at least two St. Petersburg ministers who are also active homeless advocates are opposed to the plan because they said they and other church groups have consistently been slighted by government officials.

They argue that they received no support for a similar interfaith shelter program they conceived in March that relied solely on the efforts of local houses of worship.

"Get it right," wrote the Rev. Phillip Miller-Evans, pastor of American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes in St. Petersburg, in an e-mail late last week. "You need to come begging the churches to participate. I am done asking you if I can participate."

The goal of the program is to accommodate about 500 to 550 people, said Michael Amidei, interfaith committee co-chairman for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, which proposed the plan.

Organizers are hoping the shelters across Pinellas County will be operating as early as December, in time to provide asylum against the winter chill. The program would run until March, Amidei said.

"It's another Band-Aid until we get to the place where we can have a permanent facility," said Amidei, who also heads Faith Love and Spiritual Harmony, or FLASH, a countywide homeless effort through the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Clearwater.

Members of the county homeless coalition, the Homeless Leadership Network and several church leaders have tossed around the idea of an interfaith shelter program for the past year.

But when dozens of homeless men and women set up camp along an empty lot near downtown St. Petersburg in January, the project was temporarily shelved as homeless advocates and social services agencies scrambled to find housing for them.

In May, Tent City was officially cleared and hundreds of homeless residents returned to sleeping on city streets, public stairways and park benches, Amidei said.

County officials said then that a former Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters would be converted to a long-term shelter.

But that effort has been temporarily delayed in wake of the budget cuts approved in the Legislature's recent session.

Officials say they are waiting for the county to finalize its budget before deciding how to move forward with that shelter.

In the meantime, the faith-based shelters are "Plan B," Bennett said. "It's still a temporary solution, but it does something about putting a roof over these people's heads," he said.

The faith-based shelters would work much like the county's existing emergency shelter program. Needy people could reach out to the county, which would then provide transportation to a participating church, where they would be provided with basic amenities like food, bedding and showers, Amidei said.

Organizations other than religious institutions that could house at least 12 people would also be invited to apply to become a temporary shelter, Amidei said.

Much of the program's cost could be offset by local donations, said Maureen Freaney, Pinellas director of health and human services, whose department recently suffered a $3-million budget cut.

Opponents of the plan pitched a similar faith-based shelter idea in March.

Then, the Rev. Bruce Wright of the Refuge, an alternative ministry group, and homeless advocate Eric Rubin, with support from Miller-Evans, helped set up a shelter at Lakewood United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg.

The Lakewood congregation initially agreed to take several dozen homeless people for 30 days and put them up in tents on church property, but the city turned down the church's request for a permit to do so.

The congregation then decided to put its "guests" in the church building. Some neighbors objected, saying they were afraid to let their children play outside, but Lakewood's pastor, the Rev. Kim Wells, said she would do it again.

The city's lack of support during the Lakewood effort infuriated Wright and Miller-Evans, who say it is ironic that the county is now endorsing a parallel plan.

But those developing the new program want to forestall the roadblocks and neighborhood opposition the Lakewood church encountered.

"We're trying to make sure that there's not going to be this huge outcry," said Sarah K. Snyder, executive director of the homeless coalition.

"We're trying to lay the groundwork with the cities and the counties that this is a good thing."

Judy Ellis, president of the Lakewood Estates Civic Association, said she would endorse the proposed program.

"Supervision is very key," she said. "I'm told that it will be heavily controlled."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.

A new county plan to temporarily house needy people in local faith-based institutions would be cost-effective, various homeless advocates said.

Pinellas County Homeless By the Numbers

4,400 Estimated daily homeless population in Pinellas, 2006

$2-million Annual operating cost of proposed shelter at a former Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority headquarters

$60,000 Annual cost of proposed inter-faith shelter program, much of which would be offset by community donations.

[Last modified July 17, 2007, 20:41:14]


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