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Hillsborough Commission rejects plans for a tent city

TAMPA — In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, Hillsborough County commissioners rejected plans for a tent city in the eastern part of the county.

The Catholic Charities proposal would have created temporary housing for up to 250 people at 12 acres near east Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road.

Called Hillsborough Cares, the tent city would have been modeled after Pinellas Hope, a Catholic Charities-sponsored tent city near Pinellas Park. The Pinellas shelter, in an industrial area on a dead-end road, has been deemed a success. The Hillsborough project encountered lots of opposition from nearby business owners and residents fearful of increased crime and a drop in property values.

"Common sense prevailed," said Hal Hart, a resident who lives in East Lake Park. The subdivision is located across Hillsborough Avenue from the proposed tent city site.

"I hope our commissioners will work … for a real solution," he said. "We will not accept tents."

The crowded meeting was attended by about 100 people, including some who were warned they'd be thrown out if they didn't keep their emotions in check. The room erupted into cheers when commissioners delivered their vote against the project.

"I support the mission of Catholic Charities and want to find a solution to the homeless problem," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who voted to deny the rezoning, "but it is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, and I do not believe it is an appropriate location."

Commissioners Kevin Becker, Rose Ferlita and Jim Norman voted for the rezoning. Along with Hagan, commissioners Mark Sharpe and Kevin White supported Al Higginbotham's motion for denial.

Though not in a perfect location, Ferlita said the Hillsborough Cares project was much needed during these economic times.

"The decision is not an easy one; nor will it be popular with residents," Ferlita said. "It's about the homeless. … It's the right thing to do, and it's the only thing I can do."

Catholic Charities leaders had hoped to create emergency housing for homeless residents for up to 90 days at a time in Hillsborough, which has the largest homeless population in the state.

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

Residents against the tents said they would support permanent housing, such as Catholic Charities' original plan to build affordable apartments on the site. But that plan fell through when the housing market crashed.

And beyond those residents in East Lake Park, many communities throughout Hillsborough were watching the vote, as pending land development code changes could have paved the way for similar projects.

Though denied, this isn't the end of Hillsborough Cares, said Frank Murphy, spokesman and president of Catholic Charities. The group will take a look at what worked with the project and what didn't, he said.

"We're disappointed," Murphy said. "There are 10,000 street homeless, and we'll have to come up with another plan to help them. This isn't the end of it."

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

Hillsborough Commission rejects plans for a tent city 10/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 4:30am]
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