Largest Pinellas County shelter for homeless families closes after funding was cut

The largest shelter for homeless families in Pinellas County is closing its doors for good. Grace House blames the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County for cutting off some of their funding, but the board said the shelter wasn't being run efficiently, so instead, they said they gave the money to a shelter that was.

Grace House on S. Myrtle Avenue in Clearwater has been housing homeless families for more than three decades. This month, they stopped accepting new occupants and announced they'll be closing for good by October 1. 

"That's very sad. We're not happy about that," Hope Villages of America President Kirk Ray Smith said.

Their individual apartments allow families to stay together and not have to separate like at some other shelters. Of the 130 beds available for homeless families in Pinellas County, 80 of them are at Grace House.

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"That's a large inventory subtraction, and we know that," Smith said. "And so it will have a ripple effect. I mean, we're not naive. We understand that there is going to be some direct and ancillary issues and problems as a result of this."

Smith said Hope Villages of America, which runs Grace House, had no choice but to close when the Juvenile Welfare Fund voted in December 2020 to terminate its $400,000 in annual funding to the shelter. It cited concerns over its management and financial handlings.

"This is taxpayer money. And so we expect it to be spent appropriately and well," Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County CEO Beth Houghton said. "And we were spending it on a program that we kept having. It was a little bit of Whac-A-Mole. You know, we fix one problem and another one would come up, and we fix one problem and another one would come up."

Houghton said complaints about how the staff treated participants was the final straw. Meanwhile, Smith said they understood the issues being presented and feel they were properly corrected.

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"I don't know if it was a rush, but I don't think it was well thought out. And I don't think the implications and I don't think there was nothing even what they documented rises to the level of closure," Smith said.

Instead, the JWB handed over the $400,000 in taxpayer funds to the St. Vincent de Paul Shelter. They've been doing so since February 2021. Hopes Villages of America will maintain ownership of Grace House and plans to turn the existing apartments into affordable housing.

"The bottom line is, is we know what affordable housing, that's the number one way to combat homelessness, that we can operate in affordable housing, at the very least, neutral and not being in a deficit," Smith said.