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Pinellas Park to buy mission for homeless that drew complaints

PINELLAS PARK — Officials here have figured out a way to quiet neighbors' complaints about the Haven of Rest — buy it.

Pinellas Park council members voted Tuesday to pay $370,000 plus an estimated $5,140 in closing costs for the mission's properties at 5625 and 5663 Park Blvd. The sale is scheduled to be final Dec. 21 and the Suncoast Haven of Rest Rescue Mission has until the end of January to clear out.

"They made us an offer we couldn't refuse, quite frankly, because who wants to make enemies of the city?" said the Rev. Lionel Cabral, who runs the mission. "They definitely wanted us out of here."

The proposal passed 4-0 with Rick Butler abstaining. Butler refrained from voting because he had a conflict of interest. He owns the property at 5635 Park Blvd., which is sandwiched between the two mission lots. Butler's real estate company is there.

Officials say the purchase serves two purposes: It will make redevelopment easier and it will provide relief to homeowners to the north of the mission who have long complained about the homeless who hang around and wander the neighborhood. The complaints have become more vocal in recent months, prompting the city to crack down on the mission's clients and, finally, to offer buying the place.

"It was time to take the neighborhood back," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said.

As for redevelopment, Gustafson said the city wants to buy the other eight lots on the block even though there are no plans for revamping it. The city has contracts with five owners although they're still hammering out prices. Officials have also made offers on two others. Gustafson said the city has not talked with Butler about buying his property.

But the main thrust of the purchase is helping a neighborhood that feels besieged.

The Haven of Rest is a nonprofit corporation that mainly provides food for the homeless and the working poor. Daily services or meetings are held there. It bought the property at 5625 Park Blvd. in 1988 for $65,000, according to Pinellas County Property Appraiser records. The two properties together are now assessed for tax purposes at about $280,000.

Relations between the mission, its neighbors and the city have been strained since the beginning. Neighbors were unhappy with the homeless who had no other place to go and hung around, sometimes drinking cheap beer they bought from nearby stores.

City officials were upset because of the impact on the neighbors. But they were also irked by the mission's presence on Park Boulevard — one of Pinellas Park's main thoroughfares. The mission, they felt, not only sent the wrong message to passers-by about the city but it was also smack in the middle of its redevelopment area.

The strain and tension that characterized the uneasy relationship among the parties has mounted recently.

The city has spent millions trying to refurbish that section of the city along Park and immediately north of it. Most of that money has been spent on Park Station, the faux train station at 5851 Park Blvd., two blocks west of the mission. Park Station houses city offices, the Chamber of Commerce, the Pinellas Park Art and Historical societies and meeting rooms the city rents out. The city is also building two houses just off Park in the block immediately west of the mission. Those houses, which have room for a small business as well as a residence, are designed to give potential buyers ideas of what can be done in the area.

The drain on resources have also been high, city officials said. Statistics were not immediately available, but police Capt. Mike Haworth said most of the problems are caused by about 35 individuals he classified as among the "chronic homeless." One has become especially familiar to the police because, from about June 2011 through last month, officers have documented 120 contacts with him. Of those, 36 ended in arrests on such charges as trespassing and having an open container of alcohol.

Neighbor complaints have also picked up. Sue Boyd, who lived north of the mission, said problems include public urination and defecation, drunkenness, belligerence, and yelling and cursing.

"We are disgusted by their behavior," Boyd said. "The mission serves a good purpose for those in need. These folks are abusing the mission."

Neighbors became really upset when the mission bought 5663 Park in August for $162,700, according to county records. It appeared the mission was expanding and problems would only get worse.

The city responded by stepping up enforcement. A police officer has been stationed there from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for the past month or so. Officers sat outside during the mission's Thanksgiving meal and worship service. The city borrowed an observation tower from the Pinellas County sheriff. Police also installed a video camera with a web link for neighbors. That way, they could easily spot any problems and call police.

Officials say they aren't trying to force the mission out of the city. They've even tasked a city employee with helping Cabral find a new location. That would preferably be in the industrial area in the northern portion of Pinellas Park near Pinellas Hope, a kind of tent city for the homeless at 5726 126th Ave. N.

Cabral said he definitely wants to keep up the work of the ministry. But he acknowledged that finding a new place could be difficult.

"No one wants to be around homeless people," he said.

Contact Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

By the numbers

1,697 The number of meals and meal equivalencies per day served to poor families and homeless people.

11,465 The number of impoverished families registered to receive a free box of groceries.

171 The number of other nonprofit organizations provided with bulk foods daily.

Source: The Suncoast Haven of Rest Mission

Pinellas Park to buy mission for homeless that drew complaints 11/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 3:31am]

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