In light of the pandemic and the soaring cost of rent causing a significant increase in the area’s homeless population, the City of St. Petersburg awarded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas $2.5 million to create new scattered-site shelters.
Theresa Jones, director of community affairs, told the city council that 74 homeless families in Pinellas County were languishing on a Homeless Leadership Alliance waiting list as of March 21. That number increased to 84 by Thursday’s meeting, just three days later. At least 44 of those families were from St. Petersburg, and Jones said over half the county’s homeless population are consistently from the city.
Jones explained that the city released a $2.5 million request for proposal (RFP) for scattered-site shelter space in December. Although officials notified several organizations, she said the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) was the only organization to respond. St. Petersburg-based SVDP has provided emergency, transitional and rapid rehousing services since its inception in 1987.
“They are literally homeless,” said Jones of the 84 families. “This means they are living in cars or other places not meant for human habitation.”
Michael Raposa, CEO of SVDP, told the Catalyst the beauty of the program is that the shelters are “nearly mobile” rather than at a fixed location.
“We have the ability to move it around the city as needed,” he said. “So that you don’t have to take someone that’s living way out by Tyrone, whose world is out there, and shelter them downtown.
“It’s a very flexible program, and the object … is to get these families safely sheltered tonight and then get them quickly into housing.”
The funding allows SVDP to provide emergency shelters through master leases on apartments and homes, along with utilizing area hotels. SVDP will also assign four staff members – a supervisor, two family coordinators and a housing specialist – to assist the families. Jones said the city expects the organization to accommodate 25 families at any given time.
Raposa and Jones both cited the pandemic and lack of affordable housing options for low and moderate-income households as causing a significant increase in the number of local families without a place to call home. Jones said the waitlist now grows by about 10 families per week.
The long-term economic impacts of the pandemic are still affecting the city, said Raposa. He added that many apartment complexes sustained significant losses due to the eviction moratorium, which forced landlords to raise rents. He relayed an SVDP employee recently watched their rent jump from $1,300 to $2,700 per month.
“I don’t think the city has the power to get us out of this any time soon,” he said. “It’s a bigger economic crisis that I think most didn’t see coming.”
Raposa found trouble naming an area of St. Pete where homelessness is more prevalent, stating it is a citywide issue. He said the problem is more visible in certain sections of the city, but anyone from any neighborhood could swiftly fall into homelessness.
“And I think that’s something the pandemic proved to us too,” he added. “A lot of our community woke up and realized that they were only three paychecks away from ending up out on the street.”
The SVDP program is specific to families with minor children who previously lived within the Qualified Census Tract of St. Petersburg and meet income limits mandated by the Department of Treasury, as the funding stems from American Rescue Plan Act money.
Jones said family coordinators on the project would oversee smaller caseloads of 12-13 families each, allowing for intensive case management when needed. She added that many of these families have no income and face numerous barriers to obtaining housing, such as previous evictions or criminal backgrounds, and require more personal attention.
Utilizing hotels, SVDP can begin accepting new families as soon as the agreement is accepted. Families with the means to remain in homes or apartments leased by the organization may have the opportunity to “transition in place” and assume control of the lease. SVDP will connect the others to permanent housing resources.
“We anticipate some families may be able to get housed through the use of emergency housing vouchers that are issued by the two housing authorities in our area,” said Jones.
SVDP, said Raposa, is grateful to partner with hundreds of local landlords that avoided the temptation of greed and kept units affordable for the nonprofit’s clients.
“A lot of that has to do with their good-heartedness,” he said. “And us, of course, recognizing and embracing that really critical relationship.”
Raposa said his organization’s top priority is providing safety for families with children. He believes no child should sleep in a parking lot, under a bridge, or anywhere besides a suitable shelter. The agreement with the city will more than double access to family units in St. Pete, he said.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes called the partnership “good news that is effective immediately.” He said the program allows the city to help around 50 families annually through the length of the agreement, which extends through Dec. 31, 2024.
“It makes my heart happy to vote on something that is immediately going to make an impact,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work and volunteer with St. Vincent de Paul in the past, and I just wanted to publicly thank them for stepping up and getting this done.”
The city council unanimously approved a resolution awarding SVDP $2.5 million to create scattered shelter sites. For more information on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas, visit the website here.