BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's homeless population got a hand from the County Commission on Tuesday when commissioners approved an expansion of the Jericho Road Ministries shelter on the north side of Brooksville.
The commission voted 3 to 2 to grant the organization a special exception use permit that would allow 48 shelter beds, up from the six permitted previously.
The approval paves the way for Jericho Road to accept a $440,000 state grant officials hope to receive early next month.
Jericho Road's pastor, Bruce Gimbel, sought an appeal before the County Commission after the county's Planning and Zoning Commission last week turned down the project.
They cited concerns about the compatibility of the project in an area near homes, schools and assisted-living facilities and the intensity of the use, taking six beds for homeless women and replacing them with 48 beds for homeless men.
Tuesday's audience was filled with neighbors who continued to voice those concerns, but also with advocates stressing the need for more help for the homeless.
Gimbel argued that the men in the program come into the shelter willingly seeking help. His program includes some beds for men who plan to just stay a few days but most of his focus is on an 11-month program to get the homeless back on their feet financially and spiritually.
Currently, the men in the program are housed in the organization's Mondon Hill Road facility. Under the expansion plan, the women on Howell Avenue will move to Mondon Hill and the men will move into the Howell Avenue.
"For the past decade, Jericho Road Ministries has served thousands of clients without incident,'' said John Mitten, president of the organization's board.
While Mitten said there was no perfect solution to the growing problems of the homeless, there was a need to be filled, as evidenced by the 16 men on the waiting list for a bed.
"Let this be a day of opportunity for these men, for this need,'' Mitten said.
Nearby resident Kate Caldi brought commissioners a petition with dozens of names of people opposed to the expansion. She expressed serious concerns about neighborhood children coming into contact with the clients of the program, knowing that many had drug and alcohol addiction issues.
"It alarms me,'' she said noting that no grant was worth enough to cost the community one of its children.
Another neighbor, Janet Hehn, urged the commission to uphold the denial. "I'm afraid for my safety if this is approved,'' she said.
Resident Thomas Hammatt said he had no problem with the program offered by Jericho Road but he thought there were many more appropriate locations for such a shelter. He likened the expansion to changing a bed and breakfast into a full-blown hotel.
Gimbel assured residents that his clients are background checked and that he also wanted to be sure the neighborhood was safe for children. "We've never had a problem,'' he said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he could not support the expansion. "I have a problem with the location, not the program,'' he said.
Newly sworn-in Commissioner Wayne Dukes also voted against the expansion.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.