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Bowen: Shelter provides families a new home for the holidays

The Rev. Dan Campbell remembers his 2006 introduction to Pasco's homeless population.

The man's name was Jerry. Campbell, who had been pastor for just a year at Community United Methodist Church on U.S. 19 in Holiday, discovered him sleeping in a 6-foot-long utility trailer parked behind the church.

Jerry could not walk. So, the church arranged to get him a wheelchair and also helped him obtain the disability payments to which he was entitled. They finally found a place for him to stay in Tarpon Springs.

"There was virtually nothing in Pasco County for Jerry," said Campbell, now the director of development for Metropolitan Ministries Pasco.

Flash forward nine years. Nothing just became something. Something big.

This week, the first families were scheduled to move into the brand new 12-unit transitional housing shelter behind the former United Methodist Church that now serves as the center of Metropolitan Ministries' operations in west Pasco.

Campbell shared his story during last week's ribbon-cutting ceremony, which attracted an overflow crowd to the Metropolitan Ministries campus in Holiday. Transitional housing for families has been a missing component of the public and private attempts to reduce the area's homelessness. Dubbed Miracles for Pasco, the shelter is actually a one-stop service center that provides case management, job training, classes on handling household finances and other help for the grown-ups, plus tutoring, counseling and after-school care for the kids.

The goal is to move the families out of transitional housing and into their own places to live within three to six months. Metropolitan Ministries said 93 percent of its clients in the same program in Hillsborough County still are self-sufficient after a year.

There is no shortage of immediate need or people at risk. In Pasco County, 12 percent of households are below the federal poverty level, and 33 percent earn less in a year than the basic cost of living for a family of four, $23,050, according to 2014 data. Eleven months ago, the Coalition for the Homeless counted 1,045 homeless people in the county — a remarkable 75 percent decline from four years earlier — but nearly 900 of those people did not have a shelter over their heads.

The calls to Metropolitan Ministries haven't slowed, either. It received 700 requests for shelter last year, said Nancy Dougherty, director of the agency's Pasco program operations.

She shared her own eye-opening encounters with Pasco's homeless — like the woman who showed up on a cold December night several years ago with an infant and a toddler seeking a place to stay but leaving after getting clothes and snack food.

"We had no option for a shelter for them that night," Dougherty said.

The woman told Dougherty she intended to prostitute herself as a U.S. 19 streetwalker in order to get money to shelter her children.

Or the woman in her mid 40s who pounded on the door while hyperventilating, asking if she could hide her Cadillac Escalade behind the church building. She, her husband and children had lived in Trinity, but their house went into foreclosure after the husband lost his job. He took off, leaving the woman and her three daughters to live in the Escalade, which was about to be repossessed. The woman and her children also ended up departing.

Dougherty said those experiences provided her the motivation to complete the Miracles for Pasco shelter. Perseverance certainly became a prerequisite to finish the task after the heartless actions at the governor's mansion. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $1.3 million for the project in 2013, had an election-year change of heart a year later, but whacked away with a vengeance in June. He vetoed $1 million for the project's second phase and also anything that hadn't been spent from the 2014 allocation.

Fortunately, Dougherty wasn't the only person persevering. Car dealer Scott Fink and eye surgeon/developer Dr. James Gills opened their checkbooks. So did Generations Christian Church, and Pasco County contributed $600,000 from its state housing allowance. Spring Engineering did the design and engineering work gratis. Lennar Homes organized an army of 200 employees and subcontractors to do construction duties. Plenty of others pitched in, as well.

The result meant more than just a 12-unit shelter. The donations covered the cost of building the 12-unit addition, as well. Construction is expected to begin in January and be completed by next summer. The total 24-unit project is worth about $3.5 million, Campbell said.

In the meantime, four families were scheduled to move in this week and eight more over the following two weeks. The shelter will be full by Christmas. Last week, workers still were unpacking furniture, assembling door handles and doing other last-minute work. Poinsettia plants sat nearby as did a colorful, but unwrapped, floor rug. Computers, stuffed toys, television screens and other accruements will follow.

"We want to make it comfortable and feel like home,'' said Beth Orr, director of clinical services for Metropolitan Ministries. "I can't tell you how much I like saying that. We want to make this homey.''

Bowen: Shelter provides families a new home for the holidays 12/10/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015 9:40am]
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