CLEARWATER — City leaders are once again debating what to do about Clearwater's homeless problem.
City Council member Paul Gibson believes that the prevalence of homeless people in and around downtown is hurting efforts to redevelop the city's core. He thinks the city should move the nearby soup kitchen and homeless shelter to another location — preferably an industrial area where fewer people would complain about their presence.
"It's an immense problem for our downtown area," he said Monday at a City Council work session. "We and the private sector have spent $40-million to redevelop downtown … and if we don't deal with this, we're not going to be successful."
However, moving the soup kitchen could be difficult. Located at 1345 Park St. in the East Gateway area for more than 20 years, it's independently operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which owns its building and doesn't want to relocate.
"Move us to where? Where are they going to find a building like this to put us in?" the soup kitchen's director, Mary Lou Guthart, said Wednesday as she walked through the giant freezer and the dining room where the charity feeds more than 300 people a day. "We moved here because this is where the homeless are.''
At Gibson's request, the city's lawyers have researched whether it would be legally feasible to force the soup kitchen, day labor businesses and thrift shops to eventually move out of the Gateway area, one of the main approaches to downtown. Could the city change its zoning to make it illegal for them to continue operating in that area after a certain period of time?
The answer: Probably.
"It's difficult to analyze," said Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides. She said Florida courts have upheld cities' rights to take such action, but there is little case law on this question and the city still could be sued.
Clearwater would have to contend with a state law called the Bert Harris Act, which forces governments to compensate landowners if regulations "inordinately burden" the property.
The situation can be compared with Clearwater's crackdown on billboards, in which it forced roadside signs to be taken down after an "amortization period" during which the signs' owners could recoup their investment.
In any case, the city won't pursue this anytime soon. Other City Council members aren't showing support for Gibson's suggestion. Council member Carlen Petersen vehemently opposes the idea.
"The answer is not to move these people to an area where they're not seen. The answer is to help them," she said.
With the rising number of working poor, the soup kitchen is more needed than ever, she said.
Council member John Doran noted that the only industrial zone in the city limits is near the Clearwater Air Park, and he questioned whether the homeless would really travel there.
"There is no good place to put it," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "It doesn't matter where we put this center, there's going to be people who are going to be upset by it."
Council members will continue exploring the issue. They plan to have local homeless experts speak to them in the near future.
For his part, Gibson said he couldn't think of a worse place for the soup kitchen than where it is now, near downtown: "If you had a soup kitchen, a labor pool and a homeless shelter in the center of downtown Dunedin, would they have been successful at redeveloping?"
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.