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Hillsborough officials' sudden interest in homeless camp riles opponents

TAMPA —They didn't say no.

And that was enough for supporters of Catholic Charities' tent village project to hold out hope for a "yes" in the future.

In a surprising 5-2 vote Tuesday, Hillsborough County commissioners directed their staff to review county law and define what's needed to approve the project.

"We're very, very pleased," said Frank Murphy, a spokesman for Catholic Charities.

Citing an immediate need to address a growing problem in the county, commissioners agreed to discuss the findings Aug. 11.

Recent counts show that Hills­borough County has the largest homeless population in the state.

"This is a real problem," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "We have 10,000 homeless at a minimum, and many of them are children … looking for help. What we have to be able to do is to find a way within the code to make this work."

Catholic Charities hopes to rezone 12 acres owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The site is near the intersection of E Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

The site would be used as a campground for temporary emergency housing for up to 250 people. The controversial plan calls for a mix of tents and small dwellings, called casitas, that clients would be able to stay in for up to 90 days at a time.

Catholic Charities expects the project to mirror its other tent city, Pinellas Hope, located across the bay in Pinellas Park. As in Pinellas, the Hillsborough site would be fenced and gated. Residents would also go through a background check before being allowed inside.

Along with in-kind support of $1 million annually, the group says it could provide food, a safe place to sleep, and access to services and caseworkers for up to 1,000 people a year.

Prospects for the project, tentatively called "Hillsborough Cares," didn't look good prior to Tuesday's meeting. Both county planners and a hearing officer said it should be denied. A tent city does not meet the definition of a camp, and the county does not have any process in place to guide the creation of transitional housing, officials noted.

Residents and business owners who oppose the plan have said they anticipate decreased property values, a drop in business profits and an increase in crime and blight. They reiterated that to commissioners, along with fears of homeless loiterers spreading from the camp to their neighborhoods and shops.

"A documented need is not a good reason to ignore laws on the books," said Kami Corbett, a land use lawyer representing a business owner against the plan. "Even if it's permitted, this use on the site is incompatible with the surrounding areas."

Commissioners Kevin White and Ken Hagan opposed the project for the same reasons Corbett cited. White commended Catholic Charities for trying to help homeless people, but he said that while not all homeless people are dangerous, he doubted that the nonprofit would be able to contain the overflow of people that he believes would come to the area.

"They will filter throughout the neighborhoods," White said. "We need to protect our children. We need to protect our seniors."

In the wake of the vote, East Lake Park resident Hal Hart promised a lawsuit if commissioners move forward with creating a tent city near his neighborhood. He said the plan is illegal.

"I couldn't have been more surprised," Hart said. "It's a knee-jerk reaction, a political stunt to appear sympathetic to the cause. Are they saying that it's okay for people to urinate in our lawns because this is the politically prudent thing to do?

"We are not going down without a fight."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Hillsborough officials' sudden interest in homeless camp riles opponents 07/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 10:59pm]
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