DADE CITY — After hearing the concerns and fears from neighbors, a divided County Commission said the only homeless shelter in east Pasco must close within a year.
The Chancey Road Christian Church has been running a daily shelter since last summer, housing roughly 35 to 40 people each night. But it opened without a necessary permit — and it needs that permit now to continue operating.
After two hours of emotional testimony from church supporters and opponents of the project, commissioners voted 3-2 to give the church an exception for one year.
"I don't feel near as safe in my home as I once did," said Rosemary Johnson, a neighbor on Chancey Road. She described several men two weekends ago who were loitering near her property and staring at her home.
Fivay High School teacher Eric Johnson, whose mother lives near the church, called the staff "well-meaning but naïve."
"It's a great ministry," he said. "It's the wrong location."
The temporary permit came after only two of the five commissioners — Pat Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand — voted to grant a permanent exception.
After that vote, Commissioner Ted Schrader joined Mulieri and Hildebrand in granting a temporary exception. He argued "there's some skepticism that (neighbors) are going to be able to trust the church" to follow a series of proposed conditions to reduce loitering and ban weapons, drugs and some people with criminal histories from the shelter.
Commissioners Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson voted against both the permanent and one-year permit.
"These people are affected directly by what's there right now," Mariano said. "As they said, would you put it in your own back yard?"
The decision means the shelter must close by May 2013. The Rev. Tim Mitchell, the church's pastor, said church leaders will now start "talking and praying about what our next step is."
Mitchell said the church likely would struggle to find a new location. "Looking for a location is not the issue," he said. "It's the money for the location that's the issue."
Several church supporters stressed the moral reasons to approve the shelter.
"The homeless people in this area are not going to go away," said former Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina. "Shutting down one shelter is not going to make these people disappear."
Tuesday's meeting also revealed a deep animosity between the two camps. Wilson pointed to a "thought of the week" article Mitchell posted on the church website criticizing neighbors for focusing on property values and calling homeless people "non value-added citizens."
"You know, history is a great reminder of what humanity is capable of," the article said. "Anyone remember a guy named Hitler? Anyone remember a group of NON VALUE ADDED CITIZENS called JEWS? I pray we have not fallen so far, nor grown dangerously close to such evil."
Saying he was concerned about the tone, Wilson asked if Mitchell regretted writing the article.
"I do not regret writing that thought of the week at all," he said. "It's a very true statement."
After the meeting, Mitchell chastised neighbors who argued the church was operating illegally and thumbing its nose at the county. "Those words are strong," he said.
Clarke Hobby, a lawyer for the church, conceded: "Some folks, in their zeal, might have gotten a little bit overzealous in this process. It's not fair to demonize the neighbors."