A plan to move homeless men and women from outdoor tents into small wood shelters hit a snag this week.
Pinellas Hope, an outdoor camp in unincorporated Pinellas County, neglected to apply for the proper building permits when it allowed residents to start constructing their own wood homes this summer.
That misstep has put a damper on the tent city's latest expansion plans and could delay construction of shelters sorely needed to protect the homeless from wind and rain, advocates said.
"Getting them off the ground and staying dry is really important," said Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities, which manages Pinellas Hope.
Pinellas Hope is made up of 240 tents and several administrative buildings at 5762 126th Ave. N.
Catholic Charities came up with the idea of building the tiny wood houses after residents complained about the vulnerability of their tents, which need to be replaced every six months after constant use.
By October, 11 structures had been completed. Catholic Charities had hoped to build 90 more. Residents would begin moving in in late December.
Local business leaders scheduled a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Pinellas Hope for Dec. 16. The goal was to raise $150,000 to cover the cost of new tents and the wood homes. Tents cost $150. The houses cost $1,000.
But Catholic Charities might now have to increase its fundraising goal. The minimum cost of a building permit is $75, and county officials can't say what the total bill would be until the proper paperwork is submitted.
"The question now," Murphy said, "becomes whether we need a permit or permits. If we have to get a 100 permits, it gets really expensive."
The wood structures are 6 feet wide and 8 feet long. They have four windows and a door. There is no electricity, insulation or plumbing. Residents are given a sleeping bag, and scrap wood is available to add shelves to the walls for storage.
"We don't consider it a building," Murphy said. "We consider it a high-grade tent."
That's why Catholic Charities didn't bother to apply for building permits when it began allowing residents and local contractors to build the wood shelters.
Property owners need building permits for any major project, no matter what, said Jack Tipton, director of the county's building department.
"The building code specifically says that anything constructed, altered, demolished or repaired needs to have a permit," Tipton said, "especially a building that you've got someone sleeping in. That's important. If we have a storm and it's not built properly, that's a safety issue."
The wood homes already built will have to be inspected by the county, and future construction could need special approval from the county's board of adjustment.
Contractors who build without permits are usually fined, but Catholic Charities will likely be spared.
"This is a misunderstanding, and it's something for the homeless that a charity is doing, so we probably aren't going to be forceful with them in assigning fees like we would with a contractor who does this all the time," said Tipton. "But if they aren't here in a day or two (to submit a building permit), we will have to go over there and issue a fine."