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Tent city plans die but hope shouldn't

It died, sadly, by a single vote Tuesday, that good plan for a tent city to help the homeless of Hillsborough County.

And in the end, you couldn't really blame anyone.

Who was wrong here? Not the well-meaning people who wanted to make it happen. Not even the neighbors who said, "Not in my back yard" — even if they did say it really loudly.

Catholic Charities had hoped to replicate in Hillsborough a proven plan to help people on the street who want a leg up. These were not developers plotting to take over a tasty chunk of real estate populated by endangered bunnies in the name of a new strip mall. There was nothing sinister in their blueprint for a temporary tent and "casita" camp where a homeless person could safely sleep, have a shower, eat a meal and get access to counseling and other services and a step closer to the real and working world.

Pie in the sky? Pinellas Hope, a temporary housing encampment in an industrial area on the edge of Pinellas Park, opened two years ago and is considered a success. No one thinks it's the be-all, end-all fix, but even the nation's homelessness czar called it "an incremental step towards a permanent solution."

Which was what Catholic Charities saw for Hillsborough, too, on 12 acres not far from — get ready for the fatal flaw in a good plan — a neighborhood called East Lake Park. As the real estate agents say: location, location, location.

Before you blame neighbors who stood up against it, consider what your own reaction might be if someone wanted to open a camp for up to 250 homeless people near your house. If you could say yes without reservation, good for you.

(Okay, you can blame the opposition a little — some of them, anyway. They filled the audience at Tuesday's County Commission land use meeting, holding signs that said "NO" and "STOP TENT CITY," all part of the democratic process. But a few went the more modern, town-hall route and got disruptive when others spoke. It was enough to prompt sharp talk about the aforementioned democratic process from Commissioner Rose Ferlita (tent city supporter) and for Chairman Ken Hagan to threaten to have security remove people (and he was against tent city).

Organizers of Hillsborough Cares tried to make their plan work with generous buffer zones, a single entrance, a tall fence and setbacks even wider than required for building a jail. They promised strict screening of residents. They talked about police presence and brought off-duty officers from Pinellas Hope who said reassuring things. They set a maximum stay of 90 consecutive days. In short, they offered up everything but a drawbridge and a moat.

None of it was enough. All Commissioner Al Higginbotham had to do was extract a criminal report from a stack he said was related to homeless people at Pinellas Hope and say the word "rape." A proven idea for a big problem bit the dust by a 4-3 vote. The neighbors applauded.

So what now?

Hillsborough is a big county. Surely there is a spot somewhere out there that does not edge up to a neighborhood, a place this would fit, land to be sold or even donated.

But not to find a way to make a good idea work when you only have to look across the bay to see it can? Now that would be wrong.

Tent city plans die but hope shouldn't 10/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 2:20am]

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