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Shelter not an instant hit

The turnout at Pinellas Hope pleases organizers, but some want to see it more full.

By CRISTINA SILVA and THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writers
Published December 7, 2007


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In its first days since opening on Saturday, Pinellas Hope has seen more than 140 homeless people from throughout the county arrive to ask for help, a place to sleep and a warm meal.

But the shelter and tent city on a formerly vacant lot near 49th Street and 126th Avenue has not been the immediate hit that some homeless advocates and local officials had hoped to see.

Catholic Charities opened the temporary tent city on 10 acres in mid Pinellas owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Pinellas Hope is not at its capacity of 250 residents, and organizers say they have had to turn away nearly a dozen potential residents who had warrants out for their arrests. Other homeless people have arrived at Pinellas Hope only to leave shortly after being told of the rules that prohibit alcohol and drugs.

Still, organizers say they are pleased with the turnout so far and expect more homeless men and women to relocate to the shelter in the coming weeks.

"It's going better than we hoped," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, which organized the tent city. "We have got people coming in and out."

In Clearwater, "some of my clients heard about it, and they jumped on it right away," said Jim Warner, outreach manager at the Homeless Emergency Project on N Betty Lane.

"They do have rules and guidelines, but none of them had any problem with that," Warner said. "They were happy to go."

Most of the five clients who went to join Pinellas Hope had lived on the streets of Pinellas Park before they sought help at HEP, Warner said, and wanted to return there to a secure shelter that provides needed services.

"Then they could go out and seek jobs in an area they were familiar with," Warner said.

When shelters fill up in winter, as HEP sometimes does, Warner said he will be thankful that there's another safe place he can refer those who need shelter.

Murphy said workers are setting up a bus route to transport homeless people to the shelter from throughout the county and are working to spread the word about Pinellas Hope.

"We want people to know the rules before they get here so that there are no surprises," he said. "If someone has an active arrest warrant, we try to work with them so that they turn themselves in."

But the rules make it difficult to encourage people to relocate to Pinellas Hope, said the Rev. Bruce Wright, a homeless advocate and frequent critic of St. Petersburg's approach to homeless issues.

"This situation with the warrants, it sends a message," he said. "The majority of these people who are being turned away for warrants are not involved with violent crimes. It's for violating an open container law or something like that. To these people, Pinellas Hope is an extension of Pinellas County Jail."

Pinellas Hope has yet to have a tangible effect on clients at the Shepherd Center in Tarpon Springs, said Bill Vasiliou, the shelter's executive director.

"We've got a good 5,000-plus homeless in Pinellas County," he said. "The homeless that are gathered around the greater Tarpon Springs area essentially won't have access to that camp."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or tblackwell@sptimes.com Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 6, 2007, 23:52:59]


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