Pasco County correctly picked stewardship over bureaucracy in agreeing to keep the doors open at a church homeless shelter. The importance of that decision, overturning a code enforcement officer's cease-and-desist order to the Chancy Road Christian Church's shelter, is magnified by the blast of chilly temperatures, strong winds and hard freeze warning that prompted cold weather shelters to open overnight. Though the church does not need a county permit to operate on cold nights, forcing it to shut down the rest of the time — pending a county permit — would have sent confusing messages to an at-risk population seeking shelter.
And it is a population that has continued to grow. A January 2011 count put the county's homeless population at 4,400 on any given day, including 1,600 people (up from 617 two years earlier) considered chronically homeless because they had been on the street for at least a year.
The church has operated a cold-weather shelter for two years, but over the summer it began allowing homeless people to spend the night regardless of the outside temperatures.
Last month, it applied for a so-called conditional use permit to operate as a 130-bed shelter on 4.5 acres.
The rural neighborhood, west and south of the city of Zephyrhills, features single-family homes on large, multi-acre lots and a mobile home park to the south.
Last week, a neighbor's family member complained to the county about the shelter operations, which brought the code enforcement action. A day later, county administrators reversed their staff and told the church its shelter could remain open pending action on its application.
As part of the conditions set by the county, the shelter operators must meet with neighbors to address any concerns they might have. That meeting is scheduled for Thursday. The county's Planning Commission — an advisory panel — and the county commission are scheduled to rule on the permit application in the next two months.
The church should be commended for trying to expand its mission and to help meet the needs of the homeless population. Still, it must also make a good-faith attempt to address concerns from neighbors who may wonder about suitable buffers or the potential for increased criminal activity. (The Pasco Sheriff's Office website shows that, since Dec. 2, deputies have gone to the nearby mobile home park more often than to the church/shelter.)
Pasco County also must be commended for allowing the Chancey Road Christian Church to continue serving the needy while its permit application is pending. Trying to help the homeless requires thinking more substantive than not-in-my-back-yard.