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Grant lets poor come in from cold

The $15,000 from the city will allow the hungry to be fed inside, rather than at outdoor sites.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The poor who eat their evening meals in parking lots across from City Hall soon could benefit indirectly from a $15,000 city grant.

The money will go to the St. Vincent de Paul Society for its breakfast program, which will allow the charity to use its own money to open its downtown facility at dinner to churches and other organizations that now feed the poor outdoors.

"I'm just overjoyed," said Steve Kersker, who heads the advocate group Loving Others Together.

"It's a gift from God. It was the best Christmas present I could have ever wanted. It's just so cold outside at this time of year. . . . I've already made an announcement to the people in the parking lot. They were excited, too," said Kersker, who coordinates the evening meals.

No timetable has been set for the new arrangement, but advocates hope it will begin soon at the food center, 757 Arlington Ave. N.

"The weather is turning cold, and we want the people out of the parking lot," said Ronda Russick, St. Vincent de Paul's executive director.

"Our board is very sympathetic to the hungry in our community, no matter what time of day. You can't turn hunger on and off," she said.

At present, said Kersker, about 120 people are fed in the parking lots each night. That number increases to about 200 toward the end of the month, he said.

The evening meals will continue to be the responsibility of churches and organizations, including a student group from Eckerd College that currently prepares and serves them.

The effort to move the parking lot meals indoors evolved from discussions among members of the recently formed Homeless Services Outreach Taskforce.

The group was established by City Council member Kathleen Ford, who said she was moved by Kersker's advocacy on behalf of the homeless, disabled and poor.

There are a number of advantages to moving the meals indoors, Kersker said. Besides providing protection from cold and wet weather, an indoor location such as that provided by St. Vincent de Paul will give organizations better control of the crowds they serve.

"If they're intoxicated, they will not be able to come inside and be disruptive," Kersker said.

"In the parking lot, it's hard to control people sometimes."

Mrs. Russick said St. Vincent de Paul's neighbors need not be concerned.

"The crowd will be handled the same way that we do at lunchtime," she said. "Order will be maintained. No food will be taken out. Trash will be contained within the building, and people who are known to create trouble will not be allowed in."

St. Vincent de Paul also will offer sanitation facilities.

"As a registered nurse," said Mrs. Ford, "I am concerned about the public health issues. It was just not the proper place for people to eat. It was just inhumane."

In addition, Mrs. Ford said that she also had received complaints from nearby apartment residents about homeless people urinating and defecating near trash bins.

This week, Virginia Rowell, manager of social service programs for the city, summarized the efforts of the task force.

"To preserve everyone's dignity and self-worth, we looked at different options to try to use different resources and move the feeding indoors. The Salvation Army has offered to take some people. Beacon House has extended their dinner hours, but one of the concerns was their distance from the downtown area," Ms. Rowell said.

Pamela Miller, director of social services for the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg, said the agency already serves an evening meal at its facility, at 310 14th Ave. S.

"We could take 50 more than we are currently providing meals for," said Ms. Miller.

"Currently, we are feeding about 100 people a night."

But St. Vincent de Paul's proximity to downtown and its ability to accommodate up to 250 people at one seating made the society's offer feasible.

Ms. Rowell said because many of the groups that provide meals in the parking lots are religious and hand out literature, the $15,000 grant will go to St. Vincent de Paul for its breakfast program.

That arrangement, she said, will "free up their dollars to provide what's needed for the dinner program."

The grant, which will come from the city's general fund, is expected to cover the extra cost of utilities and salary for a part-time employee and is expected to cover a year, she said.

Both Mrs. Ford and Kersker say the new program is just a start.

"I imagine we will be looking at the housing issue," Mrs. Ford said.

Added Kersker, "We're going to try to get the city to open up more shelters."

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