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Pinellas equity advocates voice concerns on gentrification, homelessness

Veronica Brezina

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Leadership PSTA Community Resource Summit panelists (left to right): Moderator PSTA Supervisor Shahadah Hameed-Thomas, Homeless Leadership Alliance CEO Monika Alesnik,CEO and President of Pinellas County Urban League CEO Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, President and CEO of Directions for Living April Lott, The Well for Life Chair LaDonna Butler and Antion Brown, owner/operator of Central Station Barbershop & Grooming, founder of the Barbershop Book Club. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Limited access to job centers, and stagnant incomes accompanied by escalating housing prices are pricing people out of their homes, leaving some without anywhere to turn to. This is an ongoing cycle that St. Pete’s economic and racial equity leaders are battling in the wake of the city’s inevitable growth. 

“We know optimal outcomes should be obtainable regardless of race, income or geography, but it’s not like that,” Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete CEO and President Kanika Tomalin said during The Leadership PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) Summit held Tuesday morning inside St. Pete’s Center for Health Equity. 

Tomalin and PSTA planning manager Jacob Lubutka said both entities have come together to help educate the public about available resources and community offerings to help people land back on their feet. 

For example, PSTA offers an on-demand program for paratransit riders and has extended service to provide transportation for late-night workers. However, there are other efforts and programs taking shape that local equity advocates are deploying. 

Meet the panelists of the summit: 

  • Monika Alesnik, Homeless Leadership Alliance CEO: The alliance is the lead agency for the homeless management information system.
  • Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, Pinellas County Urban League CEO and President: The agency’s mission is to the underserved communities by providing programs, job training and financial literacy. 
  • April Lott, CEO of Directions for Living: The nonprofit provides and helps connect struggling adults and children to health care services and social support.
  • LaDonna Butler, Chair of The Well for Life: The Well is a full-service healing space in south St. Petersburg. The Well, established in 2017, gives a physical space for individuals needing mental health counseling, wellness and self-care resources. 
  • Antonio Brown, owner/operator of Central Station Barbershop and Grooming and founder of the Barbershop Book Club: Brown opened his barbershop in 2015 and started offering free haircuts to kids in exchange for reading out loud while in his chair. In 2016, he established the book club to help promote early education. 

Leaders weigh in on housing crisis and equity: The responses have been edited for clarity. 

Brown: For the last eight years in my barbershop on Central Avenue, I have had kids come and read me books while I cut their hair. We aren’t paying enough attention to reading scores and efficiency in our classrooms and at home. I have an opportunity to teach others about this and bring this program to other barbershops. My books have characters who are similar to the kids, and we also have bilingual literature. About 90% of the kids I work with don’t have father figures. These kids are our future, they need to be educated and they can help solve these issues and gaps. 

Butler: Our incomes have not increased with the housing rates. How can we continue to recruit and retain people? I have seen initiatives where people have shared safe housing. We need to see what that looks like here. 

Gaskin-Capehart: This is my 25th day serving as CEO. This role is a custom fit for who I am in my life. We are expecting to hear from you about how we can all work together. 

Alesnik: If you are not registered to vote, please do so. In the coming years, we will be facing one of the most challenging elections. Tallahassee legislatures are questioning policies. Let me be very clear – the Housing First model is the best practice to help assist people go from homelessness to having a home – we need to keep that. When we talk about affordability, we need elected officials in our community to put their money where their mouth is. We’ve been hearing the same promises over and over, but we need to actually move the needle. We just requested $6 million of federal funding for community programs in the county to address housing, transit and other equity barriers. 

Lott: I don’t want to call it a silver lining, but during the pandemic, we have reduced the stigma of the type of person who is affected by affordability and mental health issues. For the first time, I had some of my staff become homeless or live out of their vehicle. We received a call from a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) nurse who said the hospital was ready to discharge a four-pound newborn to the mother, but she was homeless and didn’t have a vehicle to sleep in. The nurse said she makes these types of calls about homeless mothers every day. Kids in our schools are in unstable living conditions and crashing on a friend’s couch. We have enough resources in our community to help stabilize them; we just haven’t made it a priority.  

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