Several shipping containers designed to fit three single domiciles within each, all with air conditioning and USB ports. (PHOTO by MAURICE BEAULIEU | FC)

‘The Catholic spirit is always here’

ORLANDO | Spanning 20 acres of land at the end of a long side street in Clearwater, Pinellas Hope provides a safe experience of trust and community for the needy. Operated by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, the massive compound offers a place of sovereignty for the homeless population, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pinellas Hope allowed the Florida Catholic to tour the grounds, learn of its Catholic history, and discuss why its presence is so important.

The first feeling visitors might gain when arriving at Pinellas Hope is sense of structured security. Functioning as a gated community similar to that of a military base, it comes with computerized locks that separate sections of residential land from one another. The established law of donning face masks is mandatory once any person enters the office to sign in. Bags and backpacks are inspected before entering any further. Once inside, a grand pathway leads to dozens of individual tents and shipping containers crafted to house three separate rooms each. If a person decides to mingle, they can stay under a huge, open dining area of tables and chairs, equipped with large screen televisions. At the far end of the property, resembling an upscale motel lodge, Pinellas Hope erected numerous efficiency apartments, stocked with a kitchen and bathroom in each.

Established in late 2007 by the Catholic Charities of St. Petersburg, the success can be greatly attributed to the friendly and genuine care from management. Danielle Husband, director of Homeless and Veteran Services, helms Pinellas Hope with a mixture of respect for her client’s situations and devotion to the discipline it takes to maintain such an opportunity. In her interview, she recognized the main reason for the creation, respect, and longevity of the Pinellas Hope project.

Donning her facemask, Husband wants everyone to know “The faith is here.”

Catholic Core
Pinellas Hope was created out of love for the Clearwater homeless population. “Part of what makes Pinellas Hope so successful is the support of the community,” Husband said. “The diocese and the Catholic Church are our fundamental core that supports us. We don’t have a cooking kitchen here at Pinellas Hope and that was a deliberate move. Everyday every meal is brought in by outside providers. Our faith is specific to the Catholic Church because it is all mission driven. We share the same values which I think helps us be so successful.”

And while the religious kernel that makes Pinellas Hope possible is of the Catholic nature, management encourages the celebration of all religions within its walls.

“We are very sensitive that not everybody is Catholic,” Husband said. “What we want to reinforce is that the core of being Catholic is being kind and being dutiful to help somebody in need, regardless of what your belief system is. We get down to that very basic belief system that we are just here to help in any way possible. We have the support of the parishes.”

To help further the faith at Pinellas Hope, Deacon John Ustick, of St. Cecilia Parish in Clearwater, serves the compound.

“Wednesday nights he does a Christian movie night and then on Sundays he is here to support Mass,” Husband said. “(The Church) is heavily involved in the feeding process and they take a lot of pride in that. The Catholic spirit is always here.”

It is this eternal spirit of empathy workers must have in Husband’s profession to help identify and correct the main reason for homelessness.

Florida’s Homeless

“Mental health,” was the immediate response Husband offered when asked why the homeless population was so high. “I think difficulty to access of healthcare keeps people in a difficult situation. People who don’t have good family connections or community support … will lead into substance abuse issues.” For homeless people residing in different parts of the country and want to travel to Florida, she encourages them “to stay where they are in their community, reconnect with their family members, and go through their local 211 operations” (a telephone service for health and social services).

When discussing the homeless at Pinellas Hope, the topic of veterans plays a major part in that conversation. Homeless veterans have been a constant problem for the U.S. dating back to the 1960s.

“I think the military has a lot more programs in place for the folks that are serving overseas now. But the folks from Vietnam and the Korean War were not treated in the same way when they came back.”

Again, Husband referenced the importance of having a stable mindset that will allow a returning veteran to engage with society in a productive way. “I think it’s not recognized how much mental health comes along with being in those really difficult situations and the trauma that follows these guys.

These guys had families, but they went overseas, and their families broke up during that time. Either their spouse couldn’t take the constant moving or somebody started a new relationship while that person was gone and then lead to the decline of the family. So, the veterans we have in our apartments … are all single people that have been married or divorced or left their spouse. I don’t have intact couples in our veteran’s houses back here. They are mostly single men.”

Husband anticipated her help will rekindle family bonds for those who stay there temporarily. “It could be reunifying family, and then somebody goes back and stays with their kin, whether it’s is an older adult going back to live with their adult children or a young person going back home and stabilizing the family unit that way. We do have a lot of disconnected family here.”

The rebuilding of their family bonds while maintaining healthy habits will restructure their confidence to take the next step towards full independence.

Goal to curb homelessness
“Our entire goal for this shelter is to end this episode of homelessness and help folks’ transition back into the community successfully,” Husband said.

“And we also have 156 units of permanent supportive housing. They are efficiency unit apartments on the campus and those are all dedicated to folks that are leaving homelessness. Our rent is incredibly affordable. We charge under what we are allowed to charge and then most people only back there (the outer ends of the compound) only pay about 30% of their income. So, our average rent is about 300 dollars a month and Catholic Charities pays the utilities. It is affordable for the folks that are coming out of low-income/no-income situations to help them re-establish themselves.”

The onset of the coronavirus has forced Pinellas Hope to alter their strategy. “Pre-COVID our length of stay was 90 to 120 days,” Husband said of the time limits her clients were allowed to stay at Pinellas Hope. “We will be elongating that moving forward for a while because of difficulties with securing housing, but the team here works to help people get back on their feet to either secure income or improve income.”

Helping the residents of Pinellas Hope to find stable jobs is one of the main priorities for the case managers. “Many folks come to us under employed, so we help them find either better paying jobs they are qualified for,” Husband said. “Some folks are working under the table, so we help them find jobs that are tax paying and more sustainable and then also securing housing in whatever form that is, whether that is an apartment or renting a room, whether it’s sharing a trailer rental with somebody else.”

The case managers, all who are required to have a bachelor or master’s degree, are completely dedicated to help the afflicted. “Their entire purpose is to get to the crux of what causes homelessness and what they need to do to resolve it. We have weekly interventions out here,” she said of her case managers duties. “If they have addiction issues, mental health, getting them connected with the right providers, its working on employment, it’s making sure they are saving. There is no fee to stay here in the shelter, but we have an expectation that a client will save at least 80% of their income. So, case management wants to see verification of that. Whether they have no bank account … or if they can’t open a bank account easily, they can save it in our safe here because we want them to leave with money and the needs to support themselves moving forward. There is accountability with case management but also support.”

One advantage of staying at Pinellas Hope is the individual care they provide by allowing single living quarters. Tenants don’t have to share bedrooms. This freedom to live alone is beneficial if a resident is diagnosed with the coronavirus. Self-isolation becomes paramount and the housing at Pinellas Hope functions to their benefit. “We have some advantages with our location. Everybody sleeps separately and because we utilize mostly outdoor space. We were not facing some of the same crises that a typical shelter with indoor recycled air, but the only disadvantage here is that I don’t have separate restrooms,” Husband said. “I couldn’t isolate a restroom for someone that was positive (of COVID-19).”

“But Pinellas county, the whole leadership alliance has come up with a plan in the case that a homeless person went in for testing,” she said. “If he’s negative, he comes back here. If he’s positive, then they have a quarantine hotel for them to get better in and then they would come back here. We would hold their bed. We have to utilize the community process just because I don’t have the isolation ability. But if somebody in the apartments were to test positive, they are all in their own apartments. They have a kitchen, bathroom, they have to self-isolate in their own apartment during that period.”

When an individual in the Tampa area is seeking help, he or she knows that they have a community who welcomes them with open arms, will take care of them, and will do whatever they can to ensure their prospects to survive are better when it is time for them to leave.

Future Hope
The future of Pinellas Hope looks promising. The residents are well-behaved and thankful for the opportunity the Catholic Charities of St. Petersburg has given them. With the help of numerous donators, such as St. Anthony’s Hospital, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and many more, Pinellas Hope expects to expand their housing efforts to other areas of Tampa. “I do truly believe that our success is predicated on the support of the community and it really does come down to the parish level and the individual churches and what they are willing to do and the support of the diocese,” Husband said.

“Pinellas Hope is an incredibly expensive investment that the diocese has made. Because there are no fees charged to the clients, we only exist because of the generosity of APA (Annual Pastoral Appeal). APA gives Catholic Charities about a million dollars and I take over 400,000 of that to keep the shelter running. (The Church) sees the value to the community is so great that they are willing to make that investment and it’s because of the parishes. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here or at least at this capacity with having 240 beds out here. I am eternally grateful for what the blessing that the diocese really does bring to the shelter here.”

For more information, contact Danielle Husband, director of Homeless and Veterans Services, 727-556-6397. Visit pinellas