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Want to help the homeless in Hillsborough County? Look across the bay.

TAMPA — There are 10,000 homeless people in Hillsborough County.

And on any given night, there are 1,500 pillows where they can rest their heads.

Most agree that this growing deficit of beds to people, along with the county's large homeless population — the highest in the state — can't be ignored. But there is little accord on what can be done to help the homeless.

That's where Catholic Charities hopes its plan to create a tent village on 12 acres near the intersection of Harney Road and E Hillsborough Avenue might make a dent. The nonprofit agency hopes to rezone the land to provide temporary emergency housing for 250 people up to 90 days at a time. Hillsborough County commissioners expect to make a decision Aug. 11.

If approved, Hillsborough Cares, the Tampa project's tentative name, will operate much like Catholic Charities' other tent city, Pinellas Hope in Pinellas Park. Though a controversial plan around Tampa, supporters believe the proposed tent city has the potential to grow roots just as its predecessor has across the bay.

There are about 6,200 homeless adults in Pinellas County, according to a recent survey by the Pinellas Homeless Coalition.

In two years of operation, Pinellas Hope has served more than 1,300 of them, helping 56 percent get jobs and move into some type of permanent housing, said Sheila Lopez, Pinellas Hope's program director.

A few fights have broken out in the camp, and every once in a while someone has to be kicked out, Lopez said. But for the most part, especially with the help of police security at night, Pinellas Hope stays quiet.

"I can't tell you I haven't been disappointed, and I can't tell you everything is roses," she said. "But when it happens, when you save a life, it's big."

With a growing support base, what started as a temporary, experimental quick fix now moves into permanence as the camp prepares for a $4 million expansion that will include 80 efficiency apartments and a community center.

The small apartments will house clients who take longer to transition into independence, said Frank Murphy, a spokesman for Catholic Charities.

A prime candidate for residency, Murphy said, would be a man with a mental illness at Pinellas Hope who had to wait a year to qualify for disability. It took two years, and the group felt that it couldn't send him back on the streets while he waited. A person like him would be one of the first to get an apartment, Murphy said.

A multipurpose community center will serve as a gathering place at the camp and will include a dining hall where clients can eat their daily meals.

A $3 million grant from the Florida Housing Corporation, coupled with another $1 million from Pinellas County government and the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, helped pay for the expansion, Murphy said.

As Catholic Charities prepares to reconfigure the orange-and-gray tents on its 10-acre site in Pinellas, the group expects to move forward with construction just as soon as the money is in place, Murphy said.

"It's hard to get resources for this population in the streets," Murphy said. "You start with a little project, like Hillsborough Cares and Pinellas Hope, and along the way you find other resources that fit with what you're trying to accomplish."

It costs about $2.4 million a year to run Pinellas Hope. Of that total, $1 million comes from in-kind donations of food and other support. Churches, families, companies and other groups provide help in that area. Catholic Charities donates and helps to raise another $500,000.

The remaining $1 million mostly comes from the cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and Pinellas County, Murphy said. In light of looming budget cuts, some of those funds are now in question.

"It's not permanent (money), but if the county doesn't fund it, they know we don't operate," Murphy said.

Unlike the Hillsborough site, there are no subdivisions or neighborhoods near Pinellas Hope. It's located on a dead-end street next to a cemetery and mostly industrial businesses.

Although some businesses were wary of Pinellas Hope before it opened in 2007, the camp and the commercial entities seem to coexist without too much discord, local business owners said.

"They come in a lot but never really give us trouble or bother anyone," said Ann Rodriguez, a cashier at the Rally's gas station near Pinellas Hope. "It seems like a good thing."

Across the bay, neighbors and business owners opposed to the Hillsborough Cares project said they anticipate decreased property values, a drop in profits and an increase in crime and blight.

They fear homeless loiterers will spread from the camp to their neighborhoods and stores.

Calling the commissioners' move illegal, they threatened a lawsuit against the county if the project goes through.

"We are taxpayers, we are homeowners, we are concerned parents," said Hal Hart, an East Lake Park resident. "We believe that there has to be a better solution for this problem."

Taking care of the homeless in Hillsborough is a responsibility Catholic Charities thinks the county and community share. If ignored, the organization predicts, it's a problem that's only going to get worse.

"We've offered to do the heaving lifting — raise the money, provide the land — but the county's going to have to help," Murphy said. "It's a partnership, and we can't do it without each other.

"I'm hoping the neighborhood will give us a chance. I know it's hard, but we've got to do something."

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

What's next?

Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the Hillsborough Cares project Aug. 11. Commissioners have directed the county staff to take a look at county law and determine what conditions are needed for possible approval. The staff will review county housing and building codes to find ways that would allow future projects like Catholic Charities' proposal.

Currently, there is no county process to guide the creation of temporary housing such as a tent city.

Tents or houses?

Some critics of a Tampa tent city have called for permanent housing rather than the tents and small sheds proposed by Catholic Charities. Here's a comparison of the costs:

$100,000



Cost of building one

low-income housing unit.

$1,000 Cost of building a tent/casita.

$2.5million Cost of permanent housing for 250 people.

$250,000



Cost of tents/casitas for 250 people.

Source: Catholic Charities

Want to help the homeless in Hillsborough County? Look across the bay. 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 10:07pm]

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