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Hillsborough residents pack meeting to say no to tent city for homeless

Janet Reitler, center, claps with others opposing the plan for a tent city on Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Janet Reitler, center, claps with others opposing the plan for a tent city on Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road.

TAMPA — Most agree that homelessness is a problem in Hillsborough County that needs more attention.

But one solution, a proposed tent city on Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road, has neighbors fearful of decreased property values and increased crime.

At a crowded meeting set aside solely for the proposal, Catholic Charities was back before a county land use hearing officer Tuesday night with its plan for the controversial tents. Residents against the project showed up wearing T-shirts that read “Stop Tent City.”

The 12-acre site is owned by the St. Petersburg Diocese of the Catholic Church, and is located at E Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road. The group envisions a project similar to Pinellas Hope, a 250-bed shelter that opened December 2007. Catholic Charities is part of the St. Petersburg Diocese that covers Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

In Hillsborough, Catholic Charities hopes to provide temporary emergency housing for 250 people for up to 90 days at a time. The group specifically seeks zoning that would allow it to use the property as a campground.

With nearly 10,000 homeless in the county, its Hillsborough Cares project is desperately needed, proponents said.

“Street homeless need emergency shelter, and the best way to do that is with cost-effective … hard-sided tents,” said Frank Murphy, spokesman for Catholic Charities. “The 10,000 people under the freeway, behind the Dumpsters and in drainage culverts would have a place.”

Murphy said that if successful, the group would be able to serve 1,000 people a year. Residents would work in agriculture and other jobs, have a place to live, food to eat and a chance to escape homelessness.

But residents like Hal Hart don’t want to see the homeless near his neighborhood. Hart lives in East Lake Park, a 325-home subdivision that staunchly opposes the project with other neighborhoods and businesses. “Aren’t we essentially creating the equivalent of a third-world shanty town?” Hart asked? “It’s a cheap fix for a long-term problem. And in my opinion, (the homeless) deserve better.”

He and others added that a homeless center in the area could impede any retail development that could come with the slated Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino expansion.

Desmond King of east Tampa said that homelessness, prostitution and drugs are already problems in nearby neighborhoods.

“We have our hands full as is, and the last thing we need is an addition,” he said.

County planners found fault with the proposal because tents do not meet minimum housing standards. They also wrestled with the definition of a camp, defined as a temporary place for recreation by the land development code.

Hearing officer James Scarola will file a recommendation on the tent city by June 10. County commissioners are then expected to vote on the project July 21.

Hillsborough residents pack meeting to say no to tent city for homeless 05/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 12:37am]
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