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Hillsborough commissioners reject plans for a tent city

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners killed plans Tuesday for a tent city near Tampa, voting against a proposal to help the state's largest homeless population.

The plan by Catholic Charities would have created temporary housing for up to 250 people at a 12-acre site about a mile west of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Harney Road.

Called Hillsborough Cares, it would have been modeled after Pinellas Hope, a Catholic Charities-sponsored tent city in Pinellas Park. With nearly 10,000 homeless residents in the county, there are limited resources to address the growing problem.

Though deemed a success in Pinellas — where the site is in an industrial area on a dead-end road — the Hillsborough project met significant resistance from nearby business owners and residents fearful of increased crime and a drop in property values.

"Common sense has prevailed," said Hal Hart, who lives near the proposed site. "I hope our commissioners will work . . . for a real solution. We will not accept tents."

The raucous, standing-room-only meeting was attended by about 100 people, including some holding yellow signs that read, "Stop Tent City."

The crowd cheered after commissioners voted 4-3 to reject the project. Commissioners Ken Hagan, Mark Sharpe and Kevin White supported Al Higginbotham's motion for denial. Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Rose Ferlita and Jim Norman opposed the motion.

Supported by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Catholic Charities leaders had hoped to create temporary, emergency housing. Advocates contend that the tents and hard-sided dwellings called casitas are desperately needed and say the camp would provide food, shelter and access to services for about 1,000 people a year.

"We're disappointed," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities. "But this isn't the end of it, not unless someone got rid of the 10,000 street homeless here. We'll have to come up with another plan to help them."

He said the group will review the proposal before heading back to the drawing board. The group still considers Harney Road the best site for a homeless enclave but is open to considering others.

Opponents said they would support permanent housing, such as the original plan to build affordable apartments.

For the last year, Catholic Charities has been trying to rezone its land. Commissioners directed staff to rewrite the housing code to allow homeless camps and work with the group to determine what was needed for approval.

To pacify opponents, Catholic Charities agreed to have constant security and to block an entrance on Hillsborough Avenue to steer camp traffic away from businesses and the East Lake Park subdivision.

Catholic Charities also touted its success at Pinellas Hope, which opened in 2007. Pinellas Hope has served more than 1,300 homeless residents, helping more than 50 percent get jobs and move into permanent housing, its leaders said.

Pinellas Hope director Sheila Lopez broke the news to residents as they stood in line for lunch.

"We lost, but we're not done," she said. "We'll continue to fight for our brothers and sisters."

Karen Kirkpatrick couldn't believe what she was hearing. Kirkpatrick, 50, lost her full-time job in 2007 when her car broke down. When her landlord wouldn't renew her lease, Pinellas Hope kept her off the streets.

If she lived in Hillsborough, where would she go? Under a bridge, she figures.

"They've got an ulcer that's only going to grow," Kirkpatrick said of Hillsborough's homeless problem.

Although some businesses were wary of Pinellas Hope before it opened, the camp and the commercial entities seem to coexist, local business owners said.

But unlike the Hillsborough site, there are no neighborhoods near Pinellas Hope. It's next to a cemetery amid mostly industrial businesses.

On Tuesday, commissioners also cited Hillsborough County ordinances, which do not allow homeless camps. The laws could have been changed had the project cleared commissioners.

Commissioner Hagan said that he wants to find a solution to the homeless problem but that the proposed location is inappropriate.

After reading a list of criminal charges against some Pinellas Hope residents, Higginbotham said, "With that, I'll make a motion for denial."

Though not in a perfect location with imperfect people, Ferlita said, the Hillsborough Cares project was much needed during these economic times.

"The decision is not an easy one, nor will it be popular with residents," Ferlita said. "It's about the homeless. . . . It's the right thing to do, and it's the only thing I can do."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

Hillsborough commissioners reject plans for a tent city 10/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 2:11am]

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