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Residents criticize, support homeless shelter at Zephyrhills church during neighborhood meeting

ZEPHYRHILLS — Doyle Springfield didn't know until last week about the homeless shelter in his neighborhood even though he passes it every day.

And only then did the former cop, who describes himself as a nosy neighbor, discover it because the Chancey Road Christian Church made headlines when a county code enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist letter, ordering it to close its on-site shelter until it secured a required permit, or face a $500 per day fine.

"I think they're doing what they're supposed to be doing because they're a church and they're building a mission that is needed," said Springfield, who was among more than 200 people who attended a neighborhood meeting held by the church Thursday night to address concerns. "We've got to give them a chance," he told the Times. "They're doing something that I think is a positive in the community."

But not all of the church's neighbors agree. Last week, the close order came from the county after Eric Johnson, whose mother lives next to the church, complained that she was afraid to go outside because of some of the homeless people spill into the neighborhood after the church closes. He said many use drugs and alcohol. The county reversed the order, however, because the church has been for months working with the county to secure a conditional use permit. The church's senior pastor, the Rev. Tim Mitchell, was told he could keep the shelter open if it addressed neighborhood concerns.

The nearly 90-minute meeting was an attempt to do that. It began with a PowerPoint presentation by attorney Clarke Hobby, who's working with the church to secure its permit, for what could one day be a 120-bed facility.

Residents, he said, who are constantly supervised while at the shelter, have plenty of rules to follow, including they can't use drugs or alcohol. They can't be sex offenders. Residents are even randomly drug tested. They must leave the premises by 8 a.m. daily to find work.

"Our goal here as a ministry is not to enable people to be perpetually homeless," Mitchell told the crowd.

Still, some neighbors expressed similar concerns as Eric Johnson's, while others said the homeless were also thieves. One woman said the shelter brings "undesirables" to the neighborhood.

That comment drew an impassioned response from neighbor Rebecca Gaddis.

"These are human beings. How dare we stand up and call them undesirable," she said, nearly shaking when it was her turn at the microphone. "Any one of us could be in this position tomorrow. … By the way, they're homeless. Where do you want them to go?"

In recent nights, about 40 people on average have been staying at the shelter. Gary Baxter is one of them.

Once a professional musician until he was injured, Baxter tried to use settlement money from that incident to start a business, but it failed. He had no place to go until he found the church shelter.

"I'd like to thank anybody who has anything to do with this place," he said, tears in his eye and choking up.

Likewise, for Stoney Robertson, who sank into a deep depression after his mother died, causing him to lose his job and his home.

"I didn't feel like going on," he said, adding that the church's shelter saved him and has even helped him get his commercial driver's license.

Mitchell said after the meeting, he has been overwhelmed by all the support the shelter has received in recent days from as far away as Lake Placid.

"We're helping anyone who wants to help themselves," he said. "We're hoping to work ourselves out of a job."

County officials will hold two public hearings before county commissioners make a final decision on whether to grant the permit in March.

"We're definitely praying over our county commissioners," Mitchell said.

Residents criticize, support homeless shelter at Zephyrhills church during neighborhood meeting 01/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 8:24pm]

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