Hillsborough County took a major step Tuesday toward reversing its utter failure to address homelessness. Five members of the seven-member County Commission agreed to work with Catholic Charities on building a "tent city" for the homeless on church land east of Tampa — despite a wall of opposition from area neighbors and a county bureaucracy that was more wedded to its outdated rules than to tackling the homeless situation. It is a sensible decision that could help thousands of needy people gain dignified lives, make the county cleaner and safer, and save taxpayers money.
The camp is not a done deal. The commission voted to bring back a proposal in August by Catholic Charities to build a tent city on church-owned land near where Hillsborough Avenue meets Interstate 4. The church wants to build a camp of 250 tents and casitas (6-by-8-foot sheds) plus a common building where residents would eat, bathe and receive life-skills training. The complex is modeled after a similar program the church runs in Pinellas County that local officials, law enforcement and social services advocates universally praise as humane, safe and effective.
The commission majority said it would try to resolve concerns that led county officials and a hearing officer to recommend the proposal be denied. That should not be hard. Commissioners simply need to fix the Catch-22: County codes do not recognize the tent city as a "camp" and the county has no process to build transitional housing. No wonder Hillsborough has more homeless than any county in Florida. At an estimated 10,000, the number is twice as large as the number in other large counties such as Miami-Dade, Broward or Pinellas.
The commission will need to ensure that Catholic Charities has a solid plan for managing the camp, overseeing who is admitted and securing the facility. Residents and businesses nearby deserve to expect that camp residents will not loiter on their property or interfere with customers. The site needs adequate drainage and sanitation, safe access in and out for automobiles and buses and landscape buffering to avoid adding to the area's visual blight.
The majority deserves credit for realizing that the interest worth protecting was not the county's dated bureaucracy, the stereotyping or the residents' overblown fears. Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Jim Norman, in particular, made the practical case that the homeless are here, their numbers are growing and Hills- borough needs a plan for steering them into productive lives. Norman contributed at a critical time in Tuesday's debate. His call for the county to find vacant land to contribute toward a second camp unleashed a swell as other commissioners floated a range of ways to vastly expand the county's role in creating and financing temporary housing. Of course, the big credit goes to Catholic Charities. Its resources and credibility are what brought the majority to the table. The commission needs to close the deal on this proposal and create a model for temporary housing that serves both the homeless and the larger community.