Hope Villages of America (HVA) has announced its plans to provide 34 affordable housing units in an area desperate for housing solutions; however, 14 of those apartments come at the cost of its family homeless shelter.
According to statistics cited by HVA, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports a shortage of nearly affordable and available rental units for low-income residents in Tampa Bay. To help address the problem, the nonprofit plans to acquire 20 additional, fully renovated one and two-bedroom units in Clearwater.
HVA is also transitioning Grace House, a shelter for homeless women and children in Clearwater, into an affordable housing community. Kirk Ray Smith, president and CEO of HVA, said the two measures would increase the number of units the multidimensional nonprofit provides to low-income residents from 11 to 44.
“The one area we see as a huge crisis in our community is affordable housing,” said Smith. “There’s a lot of newly homeless individuals and families … because folks just don’t have a living wage any more – it’s just not affordable these days.”
According to Smith, there are only 130 available beds for homeless families in Pinellas County. He explained there is plenty of space for individuals, but most places do not accept children. Smith said that Grace House facilitates 80 of those beds, yet he is still “retiring” the shelter.
The county, said Smith, will now lose 70% of its beds for homeless families. He added that while HVA was planning on expanding its affordable housing offerings, transitioning Grace House was not part of the original strategy.
Juvenile Welfare Board terminates funding
Smith relayed that the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) – “well within their purview to do so” – decided to terminate its funding for Grace House in Dec. 2020. Smith said the shelter lost $500,000 of its $700,000 operating budget, while documents provided by JWB show the organization’s planned allocation for the fiscal year 2021 was $383,393.
The documents state that JWB “continues to experience significant concerns regarding service delivery at Grace House,” and as a result, terminated its contract with the shelter on Feb. 28, 2021. JWB allocated HVA’s funding to support Family Bridge Housing at St. Vincent de Paul, an international voluntary organization in the Catholic Church.
Although it terminated its contract with Grace House, JWB still supports the Haven of HVA, which provides emergency housing to women and children and access to wraparound services.
“Why wouldn’t you take that money also – if we’re so bad?” asked Smith.
According to documents, JWB first put HVA on a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) for Grace House in Aug. 2019 due to administrative and financial concerns. While JWB’s leadership felt differently, Smith said, “They never gave us a chance to improve it.”
“We were in the middle of addressing those things, but right in the middle of the whole plan, they pulled the funding,” said Smith. “It really cut us at the knees.”
Smith said that “by the grace of God,” HVA was able to raise $500,000 to keep Grace House afloat for another year, but now the organization is “bleeding cash” to operate the shelter.
Smith said that JWB officials never asked HVA officials to come in front of the board and provide a defense. He added that after JWB instituted the CAP, its CEO suggested letting another nonprofit operate Grace House while HVA collects rent on the facility. Smith said he declined the offer, refusing to let go of case managers that “do great work.”
According to Smith, JWWB pulled the funding the following week.
“We have a 90% success rate,” said Smith. “That means that nine out of 10 families that came to our shelter went on to permanent housing.
“And because you saw a couple of incidents you didn’t like that was unfounded, unmerited, without no investigation and no chance to defend – you decided to pull the funding.”
However, JWB’s documents outline a long history of concerns. In addition to alleged financial issues stemming from an audit in the fiscal year 2019, the organization received an unsolicited letter from a former staff member expressing “compelling concerns” over program leadership and quality of service delivery.
Subsequent staff and participant interviews conducted by JWB in Sept. 2020 raised several issues, particularly with management’s treatment of staff. In a statement to the Catalyst, April Putzulu, strategic communications manager for JWB, said the organization “remains committed to being accountable and responsible with taxpayers’ dollars, and as such, made the prudent decision to terminate the Grace House contract with cause.”
“We are seeking to provide families with longer-term, more permanent and sustainable housing options and have reinvested the dollars in a rapid re-housing model aligned with the Housing First principle, as well as that is aligned with Pinellas County Human Services and the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Alliance,” wrote Putzulu.
“While not directly related, our shift of funding allows JWB to fund a program that is aligned with national best practices and is the most effective way to help homeless families.”
To support HVA’s mission and monetize the Grace House property, Smith said the organization unanimously decided to convert the facility into affordable housing. He said that means about 40 families will now lose a place of shelter.
According to Smith, HVA is now hearing from city and county officials to “try and get creative” for funding options. “But where was that creative a year ago,” he asked rhetorically.
Smith said he reached out to public officials and local foundations seeking help for Grace House for the last year, to no avail. He noted that HVA still operates 90 food banks, serves over 17,000 victims of domestic violence and human trafficking annually, provides rent and utility assistance to thousands of residents and provides affordable housing to hundreds of people.
“We can’t allow the organization to be sunk,” he said.
Smith said Grace House’s transition would begin on Oct. 1, and he expects to acquire the additional 20 affordable housing units from the City of Clearwater around the same time. He said capital improvements and retrofitting are needed for the facility, as one unit can currently hold up to three families.
HVA, said Smith, is partnering with Camelot Community Care, a nonprofit organization based in Pinellas Park that provides homes for children that age out of foster care. He called that a great opportunity that prevents homelessness at a young age.
Smith plans to work with the Clearwater Housing Authority, “and as a backup,” the Pinellas Housing Authority, to provide affordable units based on 30% of the area median income. He said housing vouchers would allow HVA to keep prices low.
“For example, if the market rate is $1,100, and the voucher is worth $800, then they will pay $300 a month,” he explained.
While HVA is excited to expand its affordable housing initiative, Smith said that “retiring” Grace House “still hurts.” He said the organization would quit taking applications this month, and current and new residents can stay at the facility for eight to 12 weeks.
Despite the transition, Smith said HVA is in “growth mode” and looks forward to expanding its many services throughout the entire region.
“Because we know the need for what we provide is on the rise,” said Smith. “And we happen to be pretty good at meeting those needs.
“And so, we’re going to move forward.”