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A Times Editorial

Giant step backward

They were full of platitudes about compassion and dignity. Then Hillsborough County Commissioners Kevin White, Ken Hagan, Mark Sharpe and Al Higginbotham ensured the county's homeless problem remains the largest in the state.

They killed a reasonable plan by Catholic Charities to build a tent city for the homeless east of Tampa. It was a politically motivated vote to placate opponents near the site and a major step backward for the county.

Catholic Charities worked for nearly a year to build the camp of tents for 250 people on church-owned land near Hillsborough Avenue and Interstate 4. The church was to provide a building where residents would bathe, eat and receive life-skills counseling. The goal was to give the homeless a safe, temporary place to live while they sought work and a place in normal society. The program is modeled after a successful one the church runs in Pinellas County. For Hillsborough, which has twice the homeless population of any Florida county — 10,000 and growing — the project would have met a serious humanitarian and safety need at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

But common sense was no match Tuesday for political expediency. Residents who live in loose proximity to the site all but claimed the heavens would collapse if the project was built across a four-lane divided highway from them and behind a commercial trucking business. Higginbotham made some sense by proclaiming that government in these tight economic times needed to welcome help from charities when it could — then he moved to kill the project. White echoed the hypocrisy, saying the county needed to do right by the homeless while deriding them.

Only three months ago, the commission directed the county staff to find a way to make the project work. Never mind that Catholic Charities stepped up with everything — the land, the relationship with social service providers, the model for taking people already on the streets into a more secure and constructive environment. The camp would have met all health and safety standards, been staffed 24 hours a day and had on-site security and other measures to limit the impact on nearby neighborhoods. If anything, the camp would have protected residents by bringing a degree of order to a homeless population that lives unsupervised in parks, alleys and under bridges and highways.

Not a single commissioner has brought any other site to the table. Nor has any proposed a Plan B, or explained how the county's rejection might scare away other nonprofits that otherwise might help. Indeed, Catholic Charities stepped up because the county has not lifted a finger in years to address its growing homeless problem. And homeless advocates who faulted the tent city as inadequate also have some explaining to do now that the project is dead. Living in tents in a structured environment beats living underneath bridges.

The four commissioners who killed this project as inadequate have a responsibility now to suggest other options. And they better be prepared to go it alone without much help. The county jerked Catholic Charities around for a year, and now there is nothing to show for it. What charity in this recession can waste its time and resources on such a fickle partner?

Giant step backward 10/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 6:39pm]
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