A Pasco advisory committee's answer to homelessness is an eviction notice. That unreasonable recommendation from a Pasco Planning Commission majority came four days ago when the citizens' panel voted down a permit for a Zephyrhills area shelter. The advisory ruling, which will be considered by the elected county commission next month, contradicted county staffers who recommended a one-year grace period for the shelter to find a new location.
Pushing the occupants out of the shelter and back into the woods is hardly an answer to homelessness, particularly since the Chancey Road Christian Church provides the only shelter on the east side of the county.
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 the outside temperatures. In December, it applied for county permission to operate a 130-bed shelter on its 4.5 acres, then scaled back its plans. Now, it wants to run a 50-bed transitional housing program in which participants can stay up to 12 months if they agree to regular drug testing, seek employment and/or high school equivalency diplomas and meet other requirements. The church said its current shelter census is 26 people and the most people its served at one time is 42.
The shelter installed a fence to buffer neighbors, stepped up drug testing, does not accept sexual offenders or people who have recently committed felony crimes, and most importantly, does not allow clients to loiter near the property during the daylight hours. Instead, the shelter provides daily transportation to and from Career Central, the one-stop job placement and employment training center six miles away in the city of Zephyrhills.
Most of those changes began last month in response to neighbors' concerns, but the safeguards did little to placate nearby residents who told the Planning Commission of past encounters with the homeless, criminal behavior, fears for their own personal safety and concerns about the potential for lower property values.
The testimony and Planning Commission debate, however, paid little heed to equally troubling information: A count 14 months ago 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 should be commended for expanding its mission to help meet the needs of the homeless population. It also is making a good-faith attempt to address neighborhood concerns with new operating procedures that — if the Planning Commission recommendation stands — won't be given suitable time to determine their effectiveness.
The volunteer Planning Commission, appointed by county commissioners, offers advice on land-use matters only. It's a good thing because the 5-4 vote to deny the staff-recommended one-year permit and subsequent 6-3 vote to effectively evict the shelter from the neighborhood is indicative of a narrow focus that fails to consider any sense of humanitarianism or holistic response to homelessness.
County commissioners should take a broader view when they consider the shelter's permit application next month.