Homeless teen dorm raises concerns

St. Petersburg, Florida -- A proposed homeless teen dorm in Pinellas County is raising concerns among St. Petersburg neighbors. They're worried about 55 teens moving in.

The city council has approved zoning changes for the non-profit group, Starting Right, Now to take over the vacant Harris TIP school on Haines Road in St. Pete.

The group insists the teens are not the type to cause trouble.

"My kids went to school over there," says neighbor Mareese Haught.

Haught has lived in the Harris Park neighborhood for 62 years. She's seen a lot of changes to the former school across the street, including teen programs that haven't been good neighbors.

"They would just come through the neighborhood. There was a little lady down here, one of the girls threatened to beat her up," says Haught.

She hopes the proposed 55-bed facility and the Starting Right, Now program will be different.

"If they've got them where they can handle them and take care of them, then I see no problem," Haught says.

"It would be a big concern," says neighbor Kirk Bergstrom. He doesn't believe the 16, 17, and 18 year old boys and girls are the right fit for the neighborhood.

"I, of course, feel sorry for those kids of that upbringing, but maybe it would be better in a better environment. Just not this neighborhood," says Bergstrom.

Starting Right, Now board member Michelle Shimberg tells 10 News that the students just need a helping hand and a stable place to stay in order to graduate.

"They are kids that really have that grit that it takes to want to succeed. They've overcome tremendous obstacles in their family life that led them to become homeless, but they are committed to staying in school," says Shimberg.

Shimberg says the program has around the clock staff and security, as well as tough school and house rules.

"Our program is really based on accountability personal responsibility. The facility itself will have a house manager, so there's always an adult. It is secure," says Shimberg. "They go to school. They participate in tutoring. They all have a part time job. They complete community service, so there's a lot of responsibilities that go with this, but it's tremendous to see what the students can accomplish."

Council member Darden Rice is supporting the program after slowing down the city's approval process. She wants constituents to feel comfortable with their new neighbors.

"When we take the time to learn more about the program, and the needs of this growing population in Pinellas County of homeless teenagers, I think people see this the right thing to do. These are not bad kids, they're kids that are in bad situations," Rice says.

Starting Right, Now plans to open the girls dorm first with 30 students, then add the remaining 25 guys.

There are still zoning changes to be made and other work to be done. Council member Rice expects at least five more public hearings in the process.

The goal is to open the facility in January.

To learn more about the students of Starting Right, Now: http://startingrightnow.org/students.html

To learn more about how to volunteer as a mentor: http://startingrightnow.org/mentors.html


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