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Catholic Charities' proposed tent village for homeless faces uphill battle in Hillsborough County

TAMPA — The first time Elly Wencka heard about the Diocese of St. Petersburg's plans for a homeless tent village in Hillsborough County, she supported it like a good Catholic should.

With 10,000 homeless people in the county — the highest number in the state — and a lack of shelters, it sounded like a good idea.

But then she got to thinking. The proposed site is near her home and others she rents out in East Lake Park, near the intersection of Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road.

Wencka, 72, supports herself and her totally disabled 50-year-old daughter with her rent roll. Despite her faith and the need to help the homeless, she feels more compelled to keep her own family off the streets.

"Who wants people like that 700 feet from your house?" said Wencka. "I don't. To me, it's a threat."

That why Wencka joined neighbors in her 325-home subdivision in a fight against the Hillsborough Cares project, a proposal county commissioners expect to vote on Tuesday. Like others, she's concerned about a decrease in her property values and an increase in crime and blight.

Catholic Charities is seeking approval to rezone 12 acres owned by the diocese as a campground for temporary emergency housing for up to 250 homeless people.

The controversial plan calls for a mix of tents and small dwellings, called casitas, for those without housing to live in for up to 90 days at a time. Catholic Charities intends for the project to mirror its other tent city, Pinellas Hope, across the bay in Pinellas Park.

Since opening in December 2007, the Pinellas camp has provided hundreds with shelter and a daily meal at its 10 acres on 126th Avenue N. Once regarded as an experimental quick fix, Pinellas Hope is now preparing for a $4 million expansion that will include an 80-unit apartment building.

In Hillsborough County, the nonprofit 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. The site, the only one being offered for use by the diocese, is an ideal spot because it's along a bus route and close to potential jobs, its backers say.

"We're committed with providing the property, raising money to construct it and providing in-kind support of $1 million a year," said Frank Murphy, spokesman for Catholic Charities.

"If the Hillsborough County Commission turns it down, that's their right and they will have made a policy decision," he said. "Then my question will be, what are you going to do?"

The whole point of a tent city is to provide immediate housing, Murphy said. It's cost-effective and gets people on their way.

But so far, prospects for Hillsborough Cares don't look good. Both county planners and a hearing officer have said it should be denied. The 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, the officials noted in citing their reasons for recommending denial.

The lack of support from neighbors hasn't helped either, said Rayme Nuckles, chief executive of the Hillsborough Homeless Coalition. The coalition supports the plan presented by Catholic Charities, but it would rather see more permanent housing built instead of tents.

"There's always going to be backlash from a neighborhood if it's close," Nuckles said. "We've relegated certain populations as (being) 'not as good as me.' And that's what we're dealing with here."

In anticipation of denial, some homeless advocates have started to work on alternatives. The Hillsborough Homeless Coalition has suggested that the county acquire cottages similar to those 250-square-foot buildings used after Hurricane Katrina. Other groups have met with county leaders to explore options agreeable to all involved.

"There's a whole gamut of options, different ways to put together the project, different locations and different approaches," said Dave Rogoff, Hillsborough Health and Social Services director.

"A lot of discussion has been started because of this project," said Rogoff, who is also a member of the Homeless Coalition board. "If it's denied, we can go forward and address the issues that might have led to that point."

Tuesday's vote centers on the zoning process, not the project itself, Rogoff said. Commissioners will have to make a decision based on what rules are in place, not whether there is a need for more homeless housing.

Other residents who live near the proposed tent city, like Hal Hart, said they would consider permanent housing like the diocese previously thought of building on the site. He believes it would attract a different kind of clientele, unlike the chronic homeless he expects would take advantage of tents.

"It takes time to transition out of homelessness," Hart said. "If you've got permanent, supportive housing, that's typically later in the process. This is the wrong location for what they want to accomplish. It should go (farther east) in the county or southeast. Not here."

Regardless of how the commission votes, advocates are thankful that the task of highlighting the desperate need of the growing homeless population has been done.

It's the one thing everyone can agree on.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at [email protected], or (813) 661-2454.

Catholic Charities' proposed tent village for homeless faces uphill battle in Hillsborough County 07/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 7:34am]
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