A $5 million grant from a charity started by internet entrepreneur Jeff Bezos will help the local nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul CARES find permanent shelter for 400 Tampa Bay area families, officials announced Thursday.
The gift will touch about 1,000 children in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the next two years.
St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic lay organization focused on poverty eradication and homeless services in St. Petersburg for almost 60 years, was one of 42 recipients across the country to receive grants from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund. The fund, a $2 billion project started two years ago by Bezos and his former wife MacKenzie Scott, helps nonprofits who are focused on homelessness relief and creating new preschools in low-income communities.
The money will be used to launch St. Vincent de Paul’s No Child Left Outside project, which in partnership with the Pinellas County School District and Tampa Homelessness Initiative, will help families with children find permanent shelter.
During a news conference on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on Thursday that Bezos was said to be watching virtually, Mayor Rick Kriseman said the award was transformative.
“The thought that we’re going to be changing the trajectory for hundreds and hundreds of children who face poverty and homelessness is at the heart of what we work for every day in this city: the creation of opportunity,” he said.
Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg called the gift a timely “light in the darkness” in a year when the pandemic has impacted homeless people more acutely than others.
“Each person deserves the basic necessities of life: food, clothing and shelter,” the bishop said. “Providing somebody with a place to sleep not only satisfies a basic need but it also gives that person dignity.”
Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego said the school district has already been working with St. Vincent de Paul, but hopes to continue the work. He said the responsibility falls on all members of the community.
“It’s so important to understand the ramifications of homelessness,” Grego said. “It’s so important to understand that stability of students is the key to their economic future.”
St. Vincent de Paul CEO Michael J. Raposa said the gift was invaluable, but only a start at addressing a massive problem. The $5 million, he said, is about 5 percent of what is needed to find permanent housing for all homeless children across Tampa Bay.
“We are the richest, richest nation on the planet,” Raposa said. “To see a homeless child living in a car in the corner of a Walmart parking lot is unacceptable.”
He added: “We as a community have to let go of our fear of looking poverty in the face. Every time we stop at a stop light and we break eye contact with a person asking for money, every time a homeless person approaches us and we look the other way, it means we’re afraid to look at them….The solution is solving poverty, not solving homelessness. Homelessness is just a symptom of the greater ill that is poverty.”