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Commissioners want to explore North Tampa site for homeless shelter

TAMPA — They didn't like the idea of housing up to 250 homeless people in tents in eastern Hillsborough County.

Now two county commissioners who voted against that idea are pitching the prospect of putting them up at a former Florida Avenue mall in North Tampa.

Commissioners Kevin White and Al Higginbotham have both scheduled discussions for today about converting part of the Floriland Mall into dorm space for the homeless. Each said they arrived at the idea separately while brainstorming ways for dealing with the county's growing homeless population, following the contentious tent city debate last week.

The proposal is sure to stir a new round of intense community dialogue, as well as objections from the property owner.

Higginbotham said he is responding in part to newspaper editorials that faulted him for voting down a solution without having an alternative.

"I took that to heart," he said.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank has vacated about 20,000 square feet she is leasing at Floriland in a cost-cutting move. Tax Collector Doug Belden is looking to leave 10,000 square feet he rents there.

"I thought, 'What better location than this?' " White said.

Both he and Higginbotham highlighted similar upsides. Floriland, now an office complex, is in a central location close to major bus routes. There are no neighborhoods immediately adjacent.

The complex already houses offices for the Workforce Alliance, which helps people find jobs. A state Department of Children and Families regional office also is located there.

Other social service groups also have a presence at the complex or nearby, so homeless residents could easily tap services. And keeping people out of the Florida heat would be more humane than tents, White said.

Both commissioners were part of the 4-3 majority last week that killed the tent city proposal. Catholic Charities, which is affiliated with the Diocese of St. Petersburg, wanted to create a camp near Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road as a temporary housing complex for the homeless. Nearby residents and business owners protested.

Catholic Charities is open to ideas, and is fine with Hillsborough taking the lead, said Frank Murphy, the group's president.

Rayme Nuckles, head of the county's Homeless Coalition, said he is happy to see the county making an effort to address homelessness.

Reaction from representatives of the area's working-class neighborhood groups was mixed.

"They have to put them somewhere," said Joseph Robinson, president of the Sulphur Springs Action League.

He said providing a structured setting may help some homeless get on their feet and keep them from sleeping in people's yards.

Debra McCormack, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association, was feeling less charitable upon first learning of the proposal.

"I need to hear more about it, but my first inclination is, no, thank you," she said. "I think that it's a matter of safety for our neighborhoods. They're not safe now. Can't we solve the old problem before we create a new one?"

Meanwhile, a representative of Centermall LLC, the Palm Beach company that owns the property, wasn't happy to hear the suggestion. The group would have to approve any sublease, and said a homeless shelter doesn't belong in an office park.

"I don't think that would be appropriate at all," said George Heaton, manager of Centermall. "This is an office center. We've leased to other tenants based on it being an office center. That wouldn't be fair to our other tenants."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Commissioners want to explore North Tampa site for homeless shelter 10/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 11:14pm]
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