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Zephyrhills church seeks support for new homeless shelter

ZEPHYRHILLS — Complaints from neighbors and permitting problems led leaders of the Chancey Road Christian Church to shutter their homeless shelter in July.

But that doesn't mean the church wants out of the business of helping those without permanent housing.

Church Pastor Tim Mitchell, along with several church elders and deacons, attended a special City Council workshop on Monday evening, hoping to engage council members in a conversation about the homeless situation in east Pasco and persuade them to partner with the church to open a new shelter within the city limits.

"This is a big issue," Mitchell said. "Our goal is to hear from you on how you want to address this issue."

Mitchell gave the council an overview of data from Pasco's most recent homeless count, which puts the number of people without homes of their own at 4,442. Of that, most are living with friends or relatives and nearly 300 were counted in shelters, Mitchell said.

There are two shelters in west Pasco, one of which is only for men, and one program in Dade City that also only serves men, Mitchell said, adding that none accept families.

Mitchell's church initially began as the county's designated cold weather shelter for east Pasco, opening when called upon by the county when temperatures dip below 36 degrees. From there, the church decided to open its doors to the homeless every day.

It operated that way for about a year, then leaders decided to start a transition program that focused on longer-term shelter for those willing to go through training to get a job and address issues causing their homelessness.

Acceptance into the shelter was contingent on passing a background check and drug and alcohol testing, Mitchell said. Those who did not pass were asked to leave, or transported off the property, he added. On average, there were roughly 15 men, five or six women and a couple of families staying at the shelter on any given day, Mitchell said.

Then in May, the County Commission ordered the church to shut down the homeless shelter within a year. The church would need a special permit to operate a shelter at 34921 Chancey Road, and a divided commission declined to grant it.

Although the church no longer provides shelter, it still operates a food pantry and plans to open a clothing bank. It remains the designated cold weather shelter for east Pasco as well, Mitchell said.

Mitchell and other church leaders have met with City Planner Todd Vande Berg to discuss options for opening a shelter in the city limits, at a location to be determined, and to see what permitting is required.

Vande Berg said the city's land development code does not have a specific designation for homeless shelters, but it may be possible to obtain a conditional use permit under a commercial category dealing with philanthropic and institutional organizations.

Council members said they appreciate and applaud the church's efforts to help the homeless, but there isn't much they can do until the church gets a location and starts the permitting process, which involves getting approval from the city's planning board, and then the City Council.

"Your center has great merit," said council president Kenneth Compton. "But we have a mandatory process. We encourage you to pursue your valuable goals, but we can't promise you an outcome."

Mitchell said the church does not want to buy a piece of property or secure a location without knowing it has the support of the city.

"If nobody addresses these issues, the homeless are still going to be here, wandering the streets," Mitchell said. "They need people who care, who will give them opportunities. … Right now, there aren't a lot of people doing it."

Zephyrhills church seeks support for new homeless shelter 01/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 7:26pm]
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