Hillsborough has more homeless people than any county in Florida — twice as many as other large counties such as Miami-Dade, Broward or Pinellas. Given the size of the challenge, an offer by Catholic Charities to house and feed as many as 1,000 homeless people a year as the county cuts essential public services ought to be attractive. But so far, county leadership has been lacking. It's time for commissioners to step up and work with the church to make this proposal a reality.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg, the administrative body of the church in five Tampa Bay area counties, has offered to build and operate a "tent city" on 12 acres of church-owned land east of Tampa, near where Hillsborough Avenue meets Interstate 4. The church would build a camp of 250 tents and casitas (6-by-8-foot sheds) plus a building where residents could eat, bathe, do laundry and receive services aimed at making them self-sufficient and employable.
No county needs these services more than Hillsborough. The county's 10,000 homeless make up one-sixth of Florida's total street population. Catholic Charities is offering to fill a void that local government ignores even as the homeless situation worsens amid the economic recession. Modeled after Pinellas Hope, a similar program with broad-based support, the Hillsborough effort would offer the homeless up to 90 days of safe shelter while they sought jobs and learned new skills.
In a victory for bureaucracy over common sense, county staff in May convinced a hearing officer to recommend that county commissioners deny the project. The hearing officer said the facility did not meet the county's definition of a camp. Residents near the site also opposed it. Commissioners are to hear the proposal July 21.
The church's plan is not ideal. Placing the camp along a major commercial corridor would not help the businesses there. It would add to the visual blight and depress the potential to attract industry to the area. Residents also have a point that a field of 6-by-8-foot sheds might lower their property values.
But none of these are compelling reasons to kill a good idea. The technical barriers county staff are hiding behind could easily be fixed by commissioners. As the hearing officer noted, the county is obligated under its own policies to address homelessness. Yet it has no process to accommodate transitional housing. That Catch-22 is an unfair barrier to the church, which has brought everything to the table — the land, plans for security and job training, and a solid track record in Pinellas.
The concerns of East Lake Park residents also should not drown out this debate. The community is at least 300 feet from the south side of Hillsborough Avenue. The camp would be in a mixed-use area situated across a four-lane divided highway and behind a trucking business.
The lack of support by county staff and the hearing officer leave the church's plan weakened as it goes before the commission. The church should explore whether a compromise would work — an alternate site or a redesign of the original location. But the county needs to find a way to make this work. The church, after all, is taking on the county's responsibility. Commissioners risk the worst of all worlds: chasing away a willing partner even as Hillsborough's financial straits prevent it from serving a rising number of homeless. That is in no one's interest.