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Government money may help

A shift in policy that favors faith-based charities could benefit agencies that serve Pasco's homeless population.

By RYAN DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


Lisa Barabas-Henry only applied for government money once.

That was six years ago.

The founder of the Holy Ground homeless shelter drove to Tallahassee to plead her case for state government money, but Hurricane Opal forced her to spend the night in a gymnasium outside the capital.

She ended up running the short-staffed shelter, and after a sleepless night, she wasn't interested the next day in begging for money.

She came back to Hudson, empty-handed by choice. She hasn't even thought of applying for government money again.

Until now.

Her new interest could have big implications for Pasco, which is starved for ways to help its homeless population of more than 2,000, according to a 1999 count that included people living in temporary quarters.

There have been many changes in the past six years that have led Barabas-Henry, 41, to this point -- most of it in the past six months.

National policy has begun to shift favorably toward faith-based charities such as Barabas-Henry's shelter, and local homeless agencies have begun a push toward landing hundreds of thousands of elusive dollars. Pasco has the dubious distinction of being the most populous county in Florida never to have received -- or applied for -- funding from the federal government's biggest pot of money.

It's a title the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County, a group of representatives from social service agencies, is hoping to lose. Getting Barabas-Henry involved is crucial to its plans, chairman David Barzelay said. She runs the biggest homeless shelter in the county.

"One of the reasons we haven't been able to get the pieces of the puzzle together is because we didn't have her," Barzelay said.

Barabas-Henry has had an on-and-off -- much more off than on -- relationship with the coalition since she founded her shelter nearly nine years ago. Mostly, she does her own thing.

It includes lots of religion. She doesn't want to take government money if it means she can't have Bible study and pre-meal prayers.

"I put a whole lot of faith in God," Barabas-Henry said. "That's the only faith I have."

New national policy, her own expansion plans and the coalition's pleading led her to the group's monthly meeting Thursday for the first time in a long time.

She didn't just show up, she decided to run for chairwoman.

"It's a major step," said Barzelay, the outgoing chairman.

Both the state and federal governments insist their grant recipients have an organized plan among social service agencies. They need to combine their efforts to develop a plan for getting a homeless person into a shelter, then transitional housing and eventually a permanent home.

Pasco has failed, in part because it lacks a sufficient first step -- an emergency homeless shelter.

A women's and children's shelter in Hudson holds 14, and there are two domestic violence shelters, but without Holy Ground, that's it.

Holy Ground has held as many as 85 people on its grounds at the corner of Denton Avenue and U.S. 19. That's double its true capacity, Barabas-Henry said.

It started as a men's shelter, but with so many others needing help, Barabas-Henry takes just about anyone who walks onto the grounds. She puts them in a camper, mobile home or bunk room somewhere on her grounds.

In order to stay, they must attend Bible study and pray.

She has land just north on U.S. 19 to build a 200-person shelter. She can't build without more money. That's where the coalition might be able to help her.

It's still not clear if she can take government money and do what she wants.

President Bush has announced plans to give money to faith-based charities, but his plans have been met with some opposition.

New state money should also become available this year for homeless services, but it's not clear yet if faith-based groups will be able to access it, said state Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey.

"With government money, there are always strings attached," Fiorentino said. "We'll have to wait for the guidelines."

The coalition already decided it wasn't organized enough this year and opted not to apply for big federal money. It will apply next year, Barzelay said. Applications for state money will likely be due near the end of this year.

Barabas-Henry said Thursday that she will help.

"I think the county as a whole is desperate," she said.

- Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3452.

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