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Neighborhood fears diocese's homeless shelter plan

TAMPA — Joanne O'Brien noticed the yellow rezoning sign a few days after Thanksgiving, past an expanse of land at Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road.

O'Brien, 63, lives across Hillsborough Avenue in East Lake Park, a 325-home subdivision. She called the number on the sign and learned about plans for a tent city accommodating hundreds of homeless people on a 12-acre plot owned by the St. Petersburg Diocese of the Catholic Church.

O'Brien, regarded by some as the "unofficial mayor" of East Lake Park, remembers her reaction: "Over my dead body."

Catholic Charities, the group requesting the zoning, envisions a project similar to Pinellas Hope, a 250-bed shelter that opened in December 2007.

"From what I understand, they've had people in tent cities who have been criminals or pedophiles or whatever," O'Brien said. "So do we want this around our kids? The answer is 'no.' Do we want this around our schools or businesses? The answer is 'no.' "

The initial plan — tentatively titled Hillsborough Cares — has already hit a snag with county planners who question the project's unconventional approach. Catholic Charities is revising its request. The revisions will likely reduce how many homeless people can be helped at the site and how long they can stay.

East Lake Park residents have a track record for taking on corporate neighbors successfully. In the last 18 months, pressure from the neighborhood on operators of the Ford Amphitheatre and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has resulted in walls being erected in both locations to muffle sound.

They will respond forcefully to the proposed temporary housing complex, O'Brien said. Neighbors already are circulating fliers and a petition. They have launched a Web site, stoptentcity.com.

"They feel that if the people are not working, they are going to be out wandering the neighborhood, maybe drinking out of their hoses or taking showers," said O'Brien, 63. Residents fear for their safety and their already-shrinking property values.

East Lake Park resident Hal Hart said he thinks it's too early for the year-old Pinellas Hope to be considered a model of success. He wonders how many homeless people will come to the area if there is temporary housing.

"They are drawing more homeless to our area," he said.

The original request by Catholic Charities projected the number of temporary residents would drop from 500 in tents to 240, as more permanent huts replaced tents by fall 2009. Residents would work in agriculture and other jobs, and come home to a hot meal and a chance to escape a cycle of poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

"You are going to live there," said Betty Jo Tompkins, president of Catholic Charities for Hillsborough Counties, which is part of the St. Petersburg Diocese that covers Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. "You don't have to worry about somebody coming over and stealing your stuff so that you have to carry your belongings with you."

Government grants at all levels would help pay to build and maintain the community, as would a broad range of civic support, Tompkins said. Occupational counselors and social workers would join in the effort.

Residents would stay in huts, or "casitas," of varying sizes sheltering up to eight people but offering privacy to married couples. They could stay anywhere from a couple of months to over a year, Tompkins said.

The diocese already had the zoning for 240 affordable apartment units. That plan fell through with a collapsing real estate market.

Now Catholic Charities wants to modify the zoning by replacing the apartment units with casitas just big enough for bunk beds and dressers.

The idea of casitas has no precedent, said Brian Grady, a senior planner with planning and growth management.

"Clearly, it wouldn't meet any kind of dwelling unit standard in our code," he said.

One solution might be to call the entire site a camp. Casitas could qualify under that definition.

With a possible camp classification in mind, the county asked Catholic Charities to reduce its proposed density.

Camp zoning also means residents may stay no longer than 90 days — a provision that modifies the defining concept of Hills­borough Cares: establishing stability through work, savings and networking.

Catholic Charities may eliminate the tent phase altogether, said Frank Murphy, president of the organization's St. Petersburg Diocese. "The 90-day limit means you are going to have to be very aggressive with case work in regards to time," he said.

Organizers say they also want to work with the site's neighbors. Hillsborough Cares will screen out sex offenders and people who don't want to work, Tompkins said. There will be drug testing and curfews, and an off-duty sheriff's deputy guarding the place at night. Hillsborough Cares residents will be expected to work, not loiter on the premises. Anyone caught violating the rules will be booted out.

As for attracting homeless people, Murphy said, "We have almost 10,000 homeless in Hills­borough County. I would guess if you were able to measure how many homeless are in that area, there already have between 150 and 200 now."

That's small consolation for neighbors who oppose the development. Their Web site cites a University of South Florida study that found nearly 20 percent of "unsuccessful discharges" from Pinellas Hope had left for unknown reasons, and another 15 percent had been kicked out for breaking rules.

"When they fail the program or are denied access, they are here in our community," Hart said. "The reasons they are denied access are the same reasons we would not want them in our community."

"What happens when they are kicked out?" O'Brien said. "Guess where they are going to go. Into the neighborhood."

The request is due to go before a zoning hearing master on Jan. 20 but could be postponed, Murphy said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

Neighborhood fears diocese's homeless shelter plan 01/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:55pm]

    

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