NEW PORT RICHEY — The Rev. Morson Livingston has spent the past few years combing the woods and homeless camps of Pasco County, trying to connect veterans to services that can help. What they need most, he said, is a place where they can get back on their feet.
"Generally they (veterans) are good hearted, wonderful people who just are down on their luck," said Livingston, who served as a U.S. Army chaplain in Bosnia and later founded the St. Jude's Homeless Veterans Resource Center. "They have helped us by serving our country, and this is a way of giving back to them."
His nonprofit group wants to locate a veterans resource center in the former Immanuel Lutheran Church at Ridge Road and Sycamore Drive. The proposed facility would have a transitional housing unit with 30 beds, plus job counseling, marriage counseling and other services provided by volunteers.
But Livingston's idea has provoked opposition from residents of the Tanglewood neighborhoods as well as Golden Acres and Hidden Lakes, who worry that the veterans will wander the streets when they don't have activities going on, and that their own properties will lose value if the area gets rezoned.
"We have nothing against veterans, but we don't want them in our back yards," said Tanglewood East resident Misty Hart, one of about 100 neighbors who raised their concerns at a town hall meeting Tuesday night.
The former church site would need a change in land use, from residential to agricultural residential with a conditional use, in order to open the center. Livingston's group has applied for the change.
The county's Planning Commission is tentatively slated to consider the proposal May 11. The County Commission would have the final say at a later date.
"Our major concern is they don't have a plan in place, they have no idea," Hart said. "We have asked for a handbook with rules and regulations. They have no concept of what they are trying to do right now, and they want to do it close to schools and in a residential neighborhood."
Livingston's group said they do have a plan: They're following the guidelines given by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a transitional housing facility. He said the VA has approved a grant to help buy the building, and would also provide the operational funding.
According to the group's written proposal, veterans would undergo a background check before entering the facility. No one with a serious criminal past, such as a sex offender or violent criminal, would be admitted. Nor would anyone who tested positive for drugs. Residents would receive mental health evaluations and "treatment to stabilize them" so they "are deemed functional," the proposal said.
Residents would also have to comply with behavioral rules, including a dress code.
Livingston would call the facility the "Home of the Brave." He emphasized it would be not be a homeless shelter, but a transitional facility to get veterans back into "civilian life."
To underscore that the facility will not be a homeless shelter, Livingston said his group dropped "homeless" from its name about three weeks ago. The group is now called the St. Jude's Veterans Resource Center.
Neighbors question whether the group knows how to run such a facility. They grew frustrated, for instance, that Livingston wouldn't say how often veterans would undergo drug testing.
"None of them are qualified to run a facility like this," Hart said. "They claim that none of them have ever done it."
County Commissioner Henry Wilson, whose district includes the site, said he met with the Harts and their attorney Tuesday, and he is planning to meet Livingston next week. But it may be hard to find a middle ground.
"There is nothing that will change these citizens' minds," Wilson said.
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.