To ease homeless issue, St. Petersburg mulls tiny homes

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Could tiny houses help alleviate St. Petersburg’s intractable homeless problem?

It might be a solution, if those living on the streets can be persuaded to take up offers to settle into permanent housing being built at places like Pinellas Hope or the 400- to 500-square-foot homes being planned by Celebrate Outreach.

The homeless issue in St. Petersburg flared this month after complaints from residents of nearby downtown neighborhoods about men and women loitering for blocks around the St. Vincent de Paul shelter.

“You can’t overstate the negative impact that St. Vincent de Paul is having for several blocks in all directions and we have a responsibility to not inflict that kind of damage in those neighborhoods,” Council member Karl Nurse said early this week.

During a City Council committee meeting Thursday, Catholic Charities executive director Mark Dufva said Pinellas Hope, which provides housing, food, health care and other resources for the homeless, is building 76 of the tiny homes that are set to open in 30 days.

It’s part of a push by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to end homelessness by placing the homeless in housing, without regard for personal problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse and mental health. Assistance with those issues can come later, is the philosophy.

Reggie Craig, president of Celebrate Outreach, said the organization is working with the University of South Florida’s School of Architecture and Community to create tiny homes for homeless veterans and others.

Housing first “is something that we had advocated for years and years,” Craig said.

Adjacent to St. Vincent de Paul is Faith House, a “structured living facility for individuals working to recover from alcoholism, drug abuse, incarceration and homelessness,” which is part of the tiny house plans.

“We are actually preparing to house their clients while they prepare to become tiny home owners,” executive director Rebecca Russell-Gootee said, adding that some of the tiny homes could be incorporated into Faith House’s campus at 302 15th St.

Michael Raposa, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul, spoke enthusiastically Thursday about HUD’s “housing first” program.

Raposa, who also is chairman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, joined Susan Myers, its CEO, to promote the approach, but their effort was upstaged by the concerns of residents in the Methodist Town and Historic Uptown neighborhoods.

James Keane, president of Historic Uptown, expressed his disgust about the homeless problem at Thursday’s meeting.

“My concerns are many, including public defecation and public urination,” he said afterward. “The area within two blocks of the shelter has seen continual instances of people using alleys and driveways as toilets. Property values are significantly affected by the conditions in the immediate area of the shelter.”

Sister Mary McNally, vice president of mission integration at nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital, spoke of the rising number of homeless people using its emergency room and the effects of the spice epidemic.

This year, the city is giving St. Vincent de Paul $313,620 to fund a night shelter with 70 mats and additional spaces in what St. Vincent de Paul calls a courtyard and its homeless clients call “the cage.” The money also is used for a day program that offers restrooms, meals, showers, employment referrals and case-management services. The city also pays for 275 storage units used by the homeless.

“I don’t believe that the problem is St. Vincent de Paul. I think they are part of the solution,” Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Homeless Leadership Board, said this week.

“What I am advocating for is let’s get some consensus about solutions.”