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Groups in Clearwater looking to tackle homelessness problem with education

The Pinellas County School board, The Homeless Empowerment Program and the city of Clearwater are working together to create a partnership unlike any other.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When it comes to homelessness, it’s easy to focus on immediate needs. At-risk families and kids need food, money, and a roof over their heads. 

But how do you lift people out of this vulnerable position and set them on a path to stability? 

That’s a million-dollar question, but three local groups think they might have a solution.

“To me, what’s unique about this is this collaboration is taking away things that prohibit people that find themselves in a homeless situation from getting back on their feet," said Mark Hunt, director of technical and adult education for Pinellas County Schools. 

Pinellas County Schools, the Homeless Empowerment Program and the city of Clearwater are working together to create a partnership unlike any other.

“HEP already provides service to homeless individuals, individuals and families for basic needs, a place to live until they get on their feet. Services, medical services, things like that," said Hunt. "The partnership with the school district brings the element of education to that menu of services that HEP already provides.”

Adults can focus on technical training, opening careers that never were available to them, in areas where Clearwater businesses are desperately looking for talent.

“We have a constant need for bus drivers, food service staff, food operation staff, grounds, various, in maintenance, we always have openings. So, this gives us an opportunity to potentially provide individuals with a career path in some of those high needs kinds of areas," said Hunt.

Classroom education would be paired with classes at Pinellas Technical College and job apprenticeships.

"The real benefit is they are going to be connected to an employer and a career path. It gives them an opportunity to break that cycle of unemployment, underemployment, and that hence will break the cycle of homelessness,” explained Hunt.

The center of this new partnership would be the Curtis Fundamental Elementary School building and surrounding land, putting it back to use. 

“It is vacant. It has been vacant since 2013. It’s adjacent to the school district property currently. It’s underutilized and dormant," said Denise Sanderson, the director of economic development and housing for the city of Clearwater.

The transfer of the title hasn't been fully discussed, nor approved. If and when it is, it would take months or years to build the affordable housing next to the abandoned school. 

But here’s the thing: this project can get started before then. As Sanderson explained, “This project could go forward without the transfer of title to the school district; it would just be on a much smaller project.”

Regardless of whether that transfer of land title is approved, Hunt hopes the education initiative starts by the end of next year at HEP's current campus. 

“It’s starting to pick up momentum and we hope that as things progress we are able to shortly start putting teachers in place on the HEP campus and start the programs and start impacting families’ lives.”

If this deal goes through, the number of homeless or at-risk individuals that HEP could help in Clearwater would nearly double.


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