Two weeks after it allocated nearly $24 million to affordable housing projects, the St. Petersburg City Council distributed another $9.1 million to create social service hubs and address the city’s food deserts.
The money stems from $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding St. Petersburg received last year. Council members approved allocating the bulk of the health and social equity allotment – $8.58 million – to the Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF) during its Thursday meeting.
Amy Foster, community and neighborhood affairs administrator, explained that PCF would use the funding to create a network of community-based “trauma-informed” social service centers in underserved areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. She said program officials would take a personal approach to discerning residents’ needs and offering a myriad of wraparound services, mental health support and financial assistance.
“Those most in need aren’t reading the city’s social media to know about the support that is available,” said Foster. “But when a trusted source shows up to their door and talks real talk to them, we know it makes a difference.”
As Foster explained, ARPA funding must support people from qualified census tracts or those making less than 65% of the area median income. PCF will use the money to competitively procure a lead agency that will host community conversations that identify the most pressing needs and best locations for the social service hubs.
The centers, said Foster, will encompass three core components: culturally competent and trauma-informed mental health counseling; outreach to meet people where they live; and wraparound support to individuals and families.
She noted that when people seek help for mental health support, officials typically identify other needs.
“We aren’t simply talking about information and referral here,” said Foster. “This project is designed so that someone can hold their hand through applying for food stamps online, using a computer at the location. Or even driving them to a food bank to ensure they have food to eat.”
Financial assistance is available if program officials identify gaps in other funding sources. To further mitigate economic hardships, Foster said trained professionals at the hubs could discern if the root cause is due to trauma rather than a lack of financial acumen.
Using Childs Park as an example, Foster explained the program’s design provides PCF with the flexibility needed to address community-specific needs. She noted that the neighborhood has struggled with air quality issues, and its hub could offer an environmental justice component.
Hubs in neighborhoods with high eviction rates, added Foster, could also provide legal services. She said the program officials would also capitalize on existing city assets to maximize the allocated funding. If an established community center or church can properly house the services, she said PCF could provide those organizations with funding to utilize those facilities.
“I know the impact of these one-time dollars are really important to the city council,” said Foster. “So, I want to assure you that we’ve done our research.”
Foster relayed that all financial accounting and distribution information is easily accessible through PCF’s website, along with recorded meetings and downloadable applications. While the number of centers the project provides depends on the initial cost, she said program officials expect the $8.6 million to support six hubs and wraparound services over a four-year term.
However, Foster stressed that the hubs are just a location, and the program’s critical aspect is the myriad of nonprofit programming emanating from the facilities. Duggan Cooley, CEO of PCF, said the program would also mitigate any language barriers that arise.
“I think the idea now will really be to get that lead agency provider upfront,” said Cooley. “There’s an incredible need for this kind of work, but I also think to your point about synergies with other efforts, there’s a great need to come together and connect the dots. There’s a lot of dots out there.”
In addition to the $8.6 million allocated to PCF, city council members also earmarked $535,000 in ARPA funding to the St. Pete Free Clinic (SPFC) to address nutrition insecurity by implementing a Healthy Neighborhood Store program. The initiative will focus on areas designated as food deserts.
SPFC will prove technical assistance, capital improvements and incentives to neighborhood stores that participate and offer residents health options. Clinic officials will design and monitor the program for two years.