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With vote looming, fearful residents brace for tent city

Paul Cotter bought a gun to protect his home and family in East Lake Park in Tampa.

Paul Cotter bought a gun to protect his home and family in East Lake Park in Tampa.

TAMPA — One East Lake Park resident bought a gun. Another put up surveillance cameras just in case.

Someone else wrote a letter to the Pope, then decided to buy a Rottweiler.

In anticipation of Tuesday's ruling by Hillsborough County commissioners, fear of a proposed tent city near this neighborhood has moved in.

"They'll have a rent-a-cop over there," said Paul Cotter, the new gun owner. "But there's no protection for us."

The 66-year-old keeps his snub-nose .38-caliber handgun tucked away in a dresser drawer. It's next to his computer, where he's been furiously combing police reports to research the criminal backgrounds of tent city residents in Pinellas County.

Cotter and other residents in his 325-home subdivision, full of brick and stuccoed homes built in the 1950s, say they're not opposed to helping homeless people. They just don't think tents are the answer. And they are concerned about the people they say Catholic Charities will attract to the area if the nonprofit gets its way.

For more than a year, Catholic Charities has been trying to rezone 12 acres owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg for use as a homeless camp. The Hillsborough Cares project will mirror the group's Pinellas Park site, called Pinellas Hope.

In Hillsborough, where the largest homeless population in the state resides, Catholic Charities wants to create temporary, emergency housing for 250 people to live up to 90 days at a time.

Advocates contend that the dwellings are desperately needed and say the camp would provide food, a safe place to sleep and access to services for about 1,000 people a year.

As meetings and hearings at the County Center have gone by, East Lake Park residents and others opposed to the project formed the "Stop Tent City" group and Web site.

Some residents show up to sessions wearing stickers and T-shirts while holding signs that depict a person lying next to a tent with an empty wine bottle, a crushed can and a syringe scattered on the ground.

As of late, some tent city opponents have also made rounds to other meetings, including the Temple Terrace City Council and Hillsborough County School Board. Unforeseen results from pending changes to county housing code, which commissioners directed their staff to rewrite to allow for the creation of a tent city, and the criminal backgrounds of people they say will call Hillsborough Cares home have been topics of discussion.

Cotter, who shared his concerns with School Board members last week, plans to tell commissioners Tuesday why he felt compelled to purchase a gun.

In recent weeks, the retired Air Force mechanic has been busy plugging the names of homeless people who have lived at Pinellas Hope into online jail databases. He found their names in Pinellas County Sheriff's Office offense reports and calls for service to the site.

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He doesn't like what he sees.

Charges run the gamut, from alcohol possession violations to trespassing and theft, and aren't representative of the kind of people he wants to call his neighbors, he said. Records show that some called Pinellas Hope home when they were arrested.

One man in particular is in prison for strangling another man earlier this year, jail records show. The incident did not take place at Pinellas Hope, and he did not list the camp as his address at the time.

"These are the type of people they're taking in," Cotter said, going through his mug shots. "And these are people that could be moving through the neighborhood. I have an obligation to protect my family, my home and my neighbors."

Fred and Lisa Jimenez feel the same way. That's why the couple wrote letters to anyone they could think of within the Catholic Church. And when their 9-pound Japanese chin recently died, they got a new dog 10 times its size with tent city in mind.

Along with the rest of their neighborhood, the couple supported Catholic Charities' original plan to build affordable apartments. But when the plan fell through with the collapsing real estate market and the idea of tents came up, the Jimenezes lost their faith.

"Catholic Charities has such clout and power, so when they step in with a plan for the homeless when the county doesn't have one … the commissioners aren't going to say no," Fred Jimenez said. "I'm very disappointed in the commission."

Catholic Charities spokesman and president Frank Murphy said his group doesn't try to hide the fact that many of those they help have criminal histories.

"Most of the people who come through have made mistakes, and sometimes they're pretty ugly mistakes," Murphy said. "We've agreed to a number of conditions that should help with the fear factor, but when someone on the other side is building it up, I don't know what to say to that."

The nonprofit has agreed to keep constant security on site and to block off an entrance on Hillsborough Avenue to steer camp traffic away from businesses and East Lake Park. Catholic Charities also committed to providing services such as counseling, job searches and other social services referrals for its residents.

On Tuesday, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies and St. Petersburg police officers will also address Hillsborough commissioners, Murphy said. "We want to have people understand the precautions we take and what we do to make sure we do as much as we humanly can do not to have problems."

That doesn't make Paul Cotter feel any safer. In the end, he said Catholic Charities is responsible only for what happens on its property.

"You want to know how concerned I am?" he asked, lifting his gun out of the drawer. "That's how concerned I am."

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

With vote looming, fearful residents brace for tent city 10/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 1:46am]

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