On street corners around downtown St. Petersburg, bright yellow parking meters urge passersby to “help provide for homeless families and individuals” by dropping in their spare change.
Since 2019, the money — adding up to thousands of dollars — has largely sat untouched in the coffers of the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Less than 15% of the donations to the Power of Change program was actually spent on homeless services in the past three years, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
The city of St. Petersburg deposits the money in an account managed by the police, where it can be accessed by the department’s Police Assisting the Homeless unit. But records show the homeless program has spent just $1,716 of the $11,497 collected from May 2019 to this June, which was first reported by Creative Loafing.
While not a massive sum in a city budget topping $300 million, the money could have provided meaningful help to struggling families at a critical time.
Jennifer Stracick, executive director of ALPHA House, a nonprofit working to prevent homelessness among pregnant women, new mothers and babies, believes the money could have provided significant assistance if it had been directed toward addressing the issues that put people on the street in the first place.
“We are in a housing crisis in this community,” Stracik said. “If we can keep families where they’re supposed to be living, it would have a substantial impact on them.”
Stracick said the $10,000 sitting in the coffers of the Police Department could have helped 20 people stay in their homes through rental assistance. The money could also have provided six months of baby formula for 20 babies at the height of the formula shortage, according to Stracick.
Theresa Jones, who manages homeless and social services for the city of St. Petersburg, said in a statement that she intends to transfer the Power of Change collections back to her department and added that she is in the process of hiring a new employee to manage them.
As of June, the unit had spent none of the $1,854.12 it has collected this fiscal year.
The Power of Change initiative was created in 2014 to “ensure that donations are used productively for homeless services,” rather than “encouraging panhandling,” according to an email statement from Assistant Chief Michael Kovascev. The money was initially directed to the city’s Street Homeless Outreach Team, but was transferred to the Police Department when the homeless assistance unit was formed in 2019.
While the program did build relationships with numerous homeless services organizations in Pinellas County, it spent just $82.40 of the $2,281.03 it collected in revenue during its first fiscal year. In the following years, as the pandemic worsened conditions for people living on the street and rising rents added to their numbers, thousands of dollars accrued under the Police Department’s oversight went unused.
In no fiscal year was more than one-third of the money collected spent on people experiencing homelessness.
When asked why so little of the Power of Change money was spent, Kovascev responded in an email that “the ideology shifted away from the initial vision of how the PATH Unit interacted and provided support for the homeless.” Kovascev said officers “did not want to randomly purchase items that may not have an immediate use.”
For some leaders in city government and the nonprofit sector, however, these explanations have not been sufficient.
“This is not ok,” tweeted City Council member Richie Floyd, who represents District 8, on July 22. “I will be inquiring with the mayor’s office to get this money redirected, and putting in a new business item on it if that isn’t enough.”
A legislative aide to St. Petersburg City Council chairperson Gina Driscoll declined to comment but said Driscoll plans to speak with police Chief Anthony Holloway about the matter.
St. Petersburg is not the only city to experience problems with parking meter-style initiatives to aid the homeless. An investigation by the Boston Globe found that a similar program in Providence, Rhode Island, collected less than $3,000 over 41/2 years and spent none of the money collected.
Stracick sees the city’s failure to utilize the Power of Change donations as an example of what can result when money is not allocated to organizations that are actively prepared to put it to use in the community.
“It’s really hard to hold people accountable,” Stracick said. “If [the money] doesn’t go directly to a nonprofit where there’s a system in place, [then] there’s that room for error.”