I recently received an e-mail that confirmed my skepticism in a previous post about my visit to Pinellas Hope. The story highlights the dangers of institutionalizing tent cities, where horizontal organization is replaced with top-down style management.
"The City of St. Petersburg decided that the homeless were to be treated like the plague, in that they urinated in public, bothered people by panhandling, and blocked access to "legitimate" business concerns. The homeless had loosely organized a city of tents under a highway overpass with the blessing of the landowners, the St. Vincent DePaul Society. So rather than address the problem, the city decided to get rid of them by slashing their tents to the ground. This was big news around here, as the action was so brutal. The government excuse was that they were cooking in their tents, which created a fire hazard. So one morning, the Police Dept. came by with box cutters and slashed the tents at the base, leaving only the floor behind, with their possessions exposed. What was not stolen was thrown in the trash by lunchtime by city sanitation workers. Many of the residents were also minimum wage workers, and at their jobs that day...
Less than a week later, Catholic Charities declared to the news media that they had vacant land situated "up-county" near some electric power lines that was not being used, and through their benevolence, they would open Project Hope. It was a public relations coup, and I applauded their efforts. I was motivated by the events to volunteer my services to help out in any way that I was needed. I went to the site, and like you, I was turned away, as they operated under a cloak of secrecy. I was particularly impressed with how much they had done in that one week. Most of the facilities you outlined in your blog were operational in that one week's time. There is no way they organized and got that work done in a week, so there began my wondering at the motives of Catholic Charities. I was referred to a website where I had to complete an application that was extensive. I had not been made to volunteer such in-depth personal information, since I applied for my Secret security clearance when I was in the military. I was screened and had background checks done. Fellow members of my church had even been questioned by a private investigator.
I showed up for my first day of work, and quickly became disenchanted with Catholic Charities. Faith based rehabilitation is big business in Florida, and Catholic Charities was given a huge grant to operate the tent city. However, the grant money was directly tied to successful results. How they obtained residents was a joke, in and of itself. They picked families first, (naturally, as I would have done) and then the sorting began. The screening process begins when someone is picked up by the St.Pete Police for panhandling. They are driven there after checking for outstanding warrants. If there is any hint of a criminal historty of any kind, including arrests without conviction, they are not accepted. The same applies for any kind of treatment for mental illness. In fact, the only ones accepted for residency are responsible members of the community who have fallen on hard times. I understand this and agree with the concept to help those who can be helped first.
However, then I found out that the motives were strictly money oriented. They needed responsible people to boost their success rate and qualify for additional funding. Make no mistake, that place is run like a business, and the business model is based on privately run jails, or corporate "institutions". This would not be such a bad thing, except that many homeless people are homeless due to mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or a criminal background, regardless if they have repaid their debt to society. We used to call it "cooking the books", and while it is not illegal, it is highly unethical, especially for a religious organization.
Later I would find out that Catholic Charities are in direct competition with the St. Vincent DePaul Society for funding of programs to benefit the disadvantaged. Today, I volunteer at the St. Vincent DePaul Society, on the same site that the tenst were slashed away in the morning. They have built a home and call it "City of Hope", as an obvious reference to the tent city run by Pinellas Hope. However, I have reduced the hours of volunteer work there, after learning the difference between religious business and the business of religion..."
- Jimmy M.