PORT RICHEY — A former after-school hangout for children could become a safe haven for people living in the woods.
Pasco County is considering turning a shuttered clubhouse and teen center, formerly operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, into a homeless shelter and social services center modeled after the Pinellas Safe Harbor.
The Boys & Girls Club closed the teen center a few years ago and abandoned the main clubhouse this month as it moved its programs from its two buildings on Youth Lane, near the corner of Little and Ridge roads, into Paul C. Smith and Chasco middle schools in west Pasco. At one point, the club had 250 members. But declining attendance and the agency's goal of divesting itself of property and moving its operations closer to the children it serves dictated the move. The playground and outdoor basketball courts remain beside the clubhouse, but a "no trespassing'' sign is affixed to the fence.
The buildings, a combined 10,400 square feet of space, sit on county-owned land west and north of the Ridge Plaza shopping center. Because the club used U.S. Community Development Block Grant money for the construction, federal rules require the structures to remain and serve an elderly or needy population through September 2018.
At least one nonprofit organization already has asked the county if it could take over the space. Kids Kicking High, which serves elementary school children who have extreme behavior issues, is outgrowing its leased space elsewhere on Little Road, said CEO Greg Phillips.
A majority of county commissioners, however, indicated they want a homeless shelter as a permanent use for the buildings over other proposed alternatives, including holding on to the property for future county offices.
The model being considered, Pinellas Safe Harbor, is near Largo; it opened in 2011 as a jail diversion program and one-stop social services center for the chronically homeless. Later, a medical clinic opened on nearby property to curb the reliance on emergency medical services for health care.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office operates Safe Harbor and shelters approximately 400 men and women daily. It provides counseling and other services to help the needy get back on their feet. At the center, caseworkers are on hand to do needs assessments, mental health and substance abuse referrals, and connect people with the Public Defender's Office, if needed. Classes are offered on life skills, vocational rehabilitation, budgeting and other topics.
The state Council on Homelessness has said that people without shelter are more likely to spend time in jail frequently as a result of regulations against loitering, sleeping in cars and public places, or panhandling. It cited other studies reporting that the homeless cycle in the prison and jail systems costs $14,480 per person each year.
Commissioners Mike Wells Jr., whose district includes the Boys & Girls Club buildings; Mike Moore, chairman of the county's homeless advisory board; and commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey all endorsed establishing the homeless shelter at the western end of Youth Lane.
Part of the site's attraction is its location away from most residential neighborhoods. It is bordered by the closed county landfill and a large drainage area, but also offers relative close proximity to the county's bus service and stores.
Commissioner Jack Mariano said residents of Crane's Roost, the neighborhood east of Little Road, likely would object to the plan. The clubhouse is a half-mile from the neighborhood's entrance at Crane's Roost Drive. Mariano suggested finding space at an existing homeless shelter, such as Metropolitan Ministries in Holiday or the new ROPE Center in Hudson, as an alternative.
"We have an epidemic here,'' countered Wells Jr. "It's not going to be fixed if we ignore it.''
The most recent homeless survey in Pasco, conducted in January 2015, counted 1,045 homeless people, including 886 without shelter. The two buildings on Youth Lane could house up to 100 people, the county estimated.
The next step is to determine the cost of needed repairs to the buildings, identify financing and perhaps devise an interim use of the buildings by an agency such as Kicking for Kids.
George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development director, said building repairs could range from $832,000 to as much as $1.56 million, and the annual operating costs of the shelter could be about $400,000. Renovating the buildings and soliciting a nonprofit agency to run the shelter could take up to a year.