Pinellas’ largest homeless shelter for families closes due to loss of funding

Grace House, the largest shelter for homeless families in Pinellas County, will stop accepting new occupants this month and convert to an affordable housing complex by October, the facility manager confirmed this week.

The Clearwater-based shelter had 80 beds in 14 apartments, representing more than half of the permanent housing that accepted families with children in Pinellas, said Kirk Ray Smith, CEO of Hope Villages of America, the nonprofit organization that manages Grace House.

The loss is expected to strain the county’s homeless network, which already has a waiting list of about 90 families, according to Amy Foster, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance.

“We were already in crisis,” Foster said.

The current occupants, who normally stay for up to three months while undergoing financial literacy training
and advice, will be phased out through attrition.

The Juvenile Welfare Board, which allocates property tax revenues to social service programs, voted unanimously in December 2020 to end its $400,000 annual funding to Grace House due to concerns over finances and management of the non-profit organization.

Grace House was initially able to attract private donations to cover the operations. But Smith said the loss of funding from the Juvenile Welfare Board left him with no choice but to close the shelter, even though he had resolved the issues that led to the board’s review.

“JWB put us in this situation, let there be no doubt about it,” Smith said.

However, Juvenile Welfare Board CEO Beth Houghton said the problems at Grace House, from finances to resident treatment, were serious enough to revoke the funding. It also allowed the dollars to be reallocated to a “rapid rehousing” program that she described as more efficient than a shelter.

Matthew Tytell, 39, a maintenance worker and mechanic at Grace House, carries items from the community hall on Tuesday. The Clearwater Homeless Shelter will be converted into affordable housing. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The funds went to St. Vincent de Paul CARES Family Bridge Housing, a model that places families in apartments and hotel rooms for short periods before transitioning them into permanent housing.

“We’re very aware that every penny we spend is taxpayers’ money, and we absolutely have to be, and we’re very responsible with the funds,” Houghton said.

The board placed Hope Villages on a corrective action plan in August 2019 after a review found the nonprofit had failed to file background checks for all staff and volunteers, according to a 2020 memo. The review also found high staff turnover, a lack of sound financial practices, and two occupant deaths from suspected overdoses.

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As of May 2020, the initial shortcomings had been resolved, but the corrective action plan remained due to financial issues, according to the memo.

Hope Village’s 2019 fiscal year audit, reviewed in August 2020, found a series of significant weaknesses, including grants and unreconciled cash accounts, and income and expenses not recorded in the general ledger.

Smith said these issues stem more from growing pains than from reasons to lose critical funding. Houghton confirmed that the last two financial audits submitted to the Welfare Board after Grace House funding ended showed no shortcomings.

When he took over the nonprofit in 2016, then called Religious Community Services, he said it was running a $1 million deficit and “three months into insolvency.” By 2020, it had moved to an operating budget of $13 million and a deficit of $100,000.

Founded in 1967, Hope Villages serves 150,000 people between its food bank, a center for women at risk of domestic violence, and Grace House, where 90% of residents obtained permanent housing before closing.

The Welfare Board continues to fund $452,250 a year for the Hope Villages domestic violence shelter, The Haven.

Houghton said the council continued to fund the domestic violence program because the ongoing issues were specific to running the Grace House shelter. In September 2020, three current staff members and one former staff member of Hope Villages told the Welfare Board that Grace House management treated participants and staff poorly. In one example, shampoo was not provided to attendees, Houghton said.

Smith said Grace House maintains a 91% approval rating from attendees.

He said Hope Villages will continue its intensive services for the homeless, such as counseling and financial education, but is looking to the future with its affordable housing at Grace House.

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