ST. PETERSBURG — Five years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg began a potluck picnic every Friday to feed needy families and homeless people.
The need was so great that soon donated dishes were not enough to feed the more than 100 people who showed up every week. Volunteers manned the kitchen to turn out extra dishes like mashed potatoes and deviled eggs to compliment donated pizza and other food.
But no families or homeless people have been fed at the church since Labor Day when the program was suspended, at first because the church’s air conditioning broke, but also because neighbors complained to the city about homeless people sleeping in their yards and public urination.
“There were high levels of disrespect to our neighbors,” said Pat Ferns, church office manager.
Talk in the church was to permanently scrap the program that was a struggle to keep going. “It morphed into something that was beyond what this church could support,” Ferns said.
But several church volunteers have banded together to bring back the event. A revamped program will resume Oct. 3, with organizers going back to the potluck format and taking steps to stop people lining up hours before meal time.
“When you’re feeding up to 150, that means there is a huge need,” said Dani Skrzypek, a church volunteer. “Many are working people who are paid minimum wage that are trying to pay rent and feed a family. Money is so tight for them; to come and get a meal once a week is a huge help.”
Programs that help the homeless like the Unitarian Universalist’s potluck and a Saturday morning breakfast served at Trinity Lutheran Church are seen as a mixed-blessing by city officials who want to reduce the number of homeless people at homeless hot spots like Mirror Lake and Williams Park.
After curbing the level of panhandling in recent years, a recent report by homeless-consultant Robert Marbut warned that the number of homeless on the street during daytime is rising again. He warns that street-feeding efforts should be conducted in parallel with counseling and other services to help get people off the street.
“In most cases, these activities are well-intended efforts by good folks, however these activities are very enabling and often do little to engage homeless individuals,” Marbut wrote.
That’s not a view shared by the churches.
“As a Christian, our Lord said feed the hungry and those people are hungry and we’re feeding them,” said Thomas Snapp, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has made homelessness a priority in his first budget. The city is giving an extra $75,000 to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter on 15th Street North. The money will allow the center to operate on weekends and to stay open 24 hours. It currently does not open until 11 a.m.
The city also is restoring $50,000 that was cut to Pinellas Safe Harbor, a shelter run by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.