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County undermines work to help the homeless

Pasco County's official position on aiding the homeless is now crystal clear: hypocrisy. Tuesday morning, Pasco commissioners honored two groups, Artists for Humanity and the Leadership Pasco Class of 2012, for their separate attempts to benefit homeless veterans and to finance a mobile medical van providing health care to the homeless. Yet, several hours later, a commission majority killed a homeless shelter in east Pasco, giving it one year to shut down its operations after denying it permission to operate permanently.

In the fight against homelessness, buying a ticket to a fundraiser is easier than buying into an attempt for a more permanent solution.

Commissioners Ted Schrader, Jack Mariano and Henry Wilson turned down a request from Chancey Road Christian Church to operate a permanent shelter on its 4.5 acres west of Zephyrhills. Then, Wilson and Mariano voted to shutter the place immediately, but they were out-voted by Schrader, Pat Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand, who agreed to give the church one year to wind down its shelter operations.

It is a short-sighted reaction to neighborhood complaints that fails to recognize the church group's improved operations or the highly visible homeless population in eastern Pasco that has access to no other overnight shelter. Go-help-them-somewhere-else is not part of the county's 10-year plan to curb homelessness, a document with which Schrader, Wilson and Mariano need to become more familiar.

The church site started as a county-authorized cold-weather shelter two years ago and, last summer, began allowing homeless people to spend the night regardless of outside temperatures. In December, it applied for permission to operate a transitional housing program in which participants can stay up to 12 months if they agree to regular drug testing, seek employment or high school equivalency diplomas and meet other requirements. The county staff recommended capacity at 35. In March, the shelter said its census was 26 people, but on Tuesday the county said the number had dropped to 10.

Responding to earlier complaints, the shelter had installed a fence to buffer neighbors, stepped up drug testing, declined to accept sexual offenders or other recent felons, and does not allow clients to loiter during daylight hours. The shelter provides daily transportation to and from a job placement center six miles away in Zephyrhills. The safeguards, however, did not placate nearby residents who repeated their prior testimony to the Planning Commission about fearing for their own personal safety, potential criminal activity and lower property values.

Mariano, in particular, gave short shrift to the church's good-faith attempts to work with neighbors. He focused on police calls in the area tripling from 19 to 51 between 2010 and 2011, while ignoring his own staff's testimony that the number had been cut to approximately five calls for the first three months of 2012 — a pace that nearly matches the 2010 activity.

Wilson, meanwhile, said he was bothered by the tone of the rhetoric coming from the church via its website. Fair enough. But, had he reviewed the testimony before the Planning Commission, he should have been just as peeved at the racial overtones clouding one resident's objections. Neither side was blameless in using ill-conceived attempts to sway public opinion.

A January 2011 count put Pasco's homeless population at 4,400 people on any giving day, including 1,600 people considered chronically homeless because they had been on the street for at least a year. Nine months before that count, commissioners endorsed a decade-long plan to try to curb homelessness. That plan included, among other things, ambitions to develop assistance centers to provide counseling, education, life-skills training and other resources to increase self-sufficiency. It's the formula the Chancey Road Christian Church sought to follow.

By the commission's actions Tuesday, the county undermined its own plan. Ten years' work in east Pasco cannot be accomplished in the next 12 months.

County undermines work to help the homeless 05/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 8:45pm]
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