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Catholic Charities expands homeless camp in Pinellas and revamps Hillsborough plans

At Pinellas Hope, 400-square-foot efficiency apartments are being built for residents with jobs who are trying to transition out of the homeless camp. Rent will be about $400 a month, while some will pay based on income. A community center is also going up.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

At Pinellas Hope, 400-square-foot efficiency apartments are being built for residents with jobs who are trying to transition out of the homeless camp. Rent will be about $400 a month, while some will pay based on income. A community center is also going up.

PINELLAS PARK — As Frank Murphy watches truck tires roll over the wet earth at Pinellas Hope on a recent damp, cold morning, he smiles.

"They just delivered faucets for our new apartments," said Murphy, the president of Catholic Charities. "How great is that?"

Since breaking ground three months ago, the Catholic nonprofit has inched closer to making its once temporary homeless camp permanent.

They rearranged tents and tiny wooden sheds to make way for a $4 million expansion, which includes 80 efficiency apartments and a community center with restrooms and offices. The four apartment buildings and the center should be completed by the spring.

At 400 square feet each, the efficiencies will be for residents with jobs trying to transition out of the camp, Murphy said. Rent will cost about $400 a month, while some will pay based on their income.

The buildings and neat rows of tents are stark contrasts to the abandoned church that sits on 12 bare acres in Tampa.

"The same thing could be happening there (in Tampa)," Murphy said. "We have faith that it will."

Along with the construction at Pinellas Hope, Catholic Charities has been busy revamping its failed plan to create a tent city in Hillsborough County.

In October, Hillsborough County commissioners voted down the nonprofit's request to provide temporary emergency housing for up to 250 people for 90 days at a time. The group hoped to use the land, owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg at E Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road, to create an operation like Pinellas Hope.

Murphy declined to discuss the details of the nonprofit group's new plan, but he said it expects to present the project to the county by about February. Bishop Robert N. Lynch, who leads the diocese, still wants to use the same piece of property, he said.

According to county code, the nonprofit must reduce the number of people it wants to house on the same site by 25 percent. Otherwise, Catholic Charities must wait a year to resubmit the denied plan.

Murphy would not say whether tents and casitas are still being considered.

"As far as I can say right now, there's a need, it's out there and it's real," he said. "And I haven't heard anyone else come up with a new proposal since the Floriland Mall idea bombed."

A week after voting against the tent city, Hillsborough Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Kevin White proposed using vacant office space on Florida Avenue in Tampa.

They suggested converting the empty space, leased by the county, into dormitory-style housing for the homeless. But the owners of the former mall quashed the idea.

In the two months since the commission vote, a Brandon soup kitchen director is moving forward with her own ideas.

Lela Lilyquist, director of Portamento of Hope, envisions tapping stimulus funds to bring ailing mobile home parks up to code. The homeless would live in the trailers and be supervised by case managers.

Lilyquist caught the ear of East Lake Park resident Hal Hart when she presented the idea to county commissioners in October. Hart, who opposed a tent city near his home, has since lobbied commissioners and mobile home park owners to support Lilyquist's idea.

Several months ago, she also presented an idea to use small cottages instead of tents to house the homeless at Catholic Charities' property in east Hillsborough. The idea, which was supported by the Hillsborough Homeless Coalition, never took root.

Hart said that the residents of his neighborhood are disappointed to know that Catholic Charities still wants to use the same piece of property. East Lake Park is across Hillsborough Avenue from the proposed site.

"I'm writing a letter to Bishop Lynch," he said. "While we think a project like that has merit, we would really like to see something viable there for the homeless.

"Catholic Charities has zero credibility with us."

Murphy said that his group is open to any suggestions from anyone who wants to help the homeless. But he hasn't heard from anybody.

"Right now we're asking ourselves what the county is willing to do," he said.

Without them, he said, it just won't work.

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

Catholic Charities expands homeless camp in Pinellas and revamps Hillsborough plans 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 10:42pm]
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