LIGHT SHINING IN THE DARKNESS
This evening was the first of two nights my wonderful colleagues and collaborators in the diocesan offices have chosen for serving the evening meal at Pinellas Hope, the homeless shelter located in central Pinellas county on diocesan land. The staff of the Bishop Larkin Pastoral Center, the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, Spirit FM, and Catholic cemetarys are foregoing Christmas parties this year, choosing instead to cook and serve two meals prior to Christmas at Pinellas Hope. There were over sixty of us, cooking, serving, visiting and cleaning up.
Today, Tuesday, has been quite a day at the homeless shelter off 49th Street. This morning the county commissioners, the Mayor of St. Petersburg, and other dignitaries prepared and served pancakes for the residents prior to their departure for work (a higher per centage work each day than do not). It was meant to be a fund-raiser for Pinellas Hope and was successful to the “tune” of $70,000. A generous and anonymous benefactor has promised another gift of $100,000 if it is matched by December 31, 2008 proving once again that hard times do not make hard hearts.
Tonight it is our turn from the diocese to prepare and serve the meal. There are currently just over 260 overnight residents. They have access to clean lavatories, hot showers, laundry facilities and medical and dental attention can also be given when needed. Some of them need not be homeless but are unaware of benefits for which they already qualify as veterans or disabled. Pinellas Hope provides access to counselors who assist in preparing the paper work which often makes it possible for someone who came to us on the street to move into affordable housing and even hold down a job. That is the goal of Pinellas Hope for every overnight resident.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg coordinates the efforts of many outside agencies and political units. The shelter is located on diocesan property. There are many other good outreach programs to and for the homeless of the area and Pinellas Hope is only one. Through the goodness of generous benefactors, the volunteer efforts of many churches and parishes, Pinellas Hope serves the really poor from October through April. The residents generally police themselves and enforce rather strict rules of conduct and behavior inside the shelter: no alcohol. no drugs, no fighting, strict hours when residents must be inside the area, etc. All homeless are background-screened prior to acceptance into Pinellas Hope.
Only an evening meal is promised but some Good Samaritan or another regularly comes with donuts and rolls for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch for those who remain. Many area Churches and parishes volunteer to provide the evening meal. Feeding a population of about 265 per night costs these wonderful parishes and churches a minimum of $750 to $1000 per night. And believe me, while the food is substantial enough and filling, it is not over the top either. Espiritu Santo parish in Safety Harbor covers three nights a month, St. Catherine of Siena in Largo two nights a month, St. Patrick’s, also in Largo one night a month and the cost of their generosity adds up. But they come, cook, serve, clean-up because they remember the Lord Jesus’ words, “whatever you do for these the least of my brothers and sisters you do for me.”
Conversations with Hillsborough County officials for a similar shelter in that county are underway but so far the synergy of political units which made Pinellas Hope possible has not yet come to pass. I still have my hopes and have offered a piece of property which would work if approved. One by one we will try to duplicate Pinellas Hope in the other four counties but it is never easy. USF conducted a research project at government’s request into the first five months of Pinellas Hope’s existence and found many more positive results from the effort than I would have thought possible. When we began, my hope was that we could just provide a safe environment off the street for these women and men. But that has never been the only goal. How many were ultimately placed in permanent housing? How many ultimately found a permanent job which enabled them to sustain a life? I will share with you USF’s findings but I will conclude tonight’s entry with just this thought – when good people care enough, other good people can become better.