Hernando County shouldn't turn its back on helping the homeless. Tuesday, county government — this time the elected commission — gets a second shot at approving a transitional shelter for homeless men. Commissioners should do just that. Seven days ago, the appointed Planning and Zoning Commission erroneously rejected a 20-bedroom facility on Howell Avenue, just outside the city of Brooksville.
The planning board, swayed by not-in-my-backyard arguments from, among others, former county engineer Charles Mixson, said the shelter was not compatible with the neighborhood even though it is an expansion of an existing homeless facility and meets the requirements of the county's comprehensive land plan.
No matter. Mixson's former assistant, Ron Caldi, a board member, inaccurately and unfairly portrayed the shelter as a public safety threat in which winos and drug addicts will stumble up and down the street past neighborhood schools. Rather, the men will enroll in an 11-month program of classes, work and spiritual guidance in preparation for living on their own. Applicants are not admitted if they test positive for drugs or alcohol. They are not treated medically for substance abuse and they do not leave the premises unless accompanied by a staff member.
Unfortunately, a planning board majority voted down the application — called an amended exceptional use permit — but Jericho Road Ministries Inc. appealed to the county commission because of a pending $440,000 state grant application to finance the expansion.
The proposal calls for turning the existing six-bedroom women's shelter into a four-bedroom men's facility and adding a 16-bedroom dormitory on the property, capable of serving up to 48 clients. The women will be moved elsewhere. Jericho Road Ministries operates a near-capacity 12-bed men's shelter at another site and has a waiting list of 16 people, said the Rev. Bruce Gimbel. During the first nine months of the year, requests for help from families more than doubled from all of 2009. Likewise, the number of men seeking shelter is up by a third.
A planning board majority seemed unable to grasp the mathematics that there is an immediate need for at least 28 beds, and several wondered if the ministry would accept fewer. But before that negotiation could begin in earnest, the board opted to deny the application.
Too bad. Besides the rising need, the most imperative data from Gimbel addressed the public safety questions. In the decade Jericho Road Ministries has operated its men's shelter, police have never been summoned by neighbors. It is the most compelling evidence that the agency operates a safe, successful transitional program for clients who want to be helped.
County commissioners should reverse the planning board's decision. If they want to add other conditions — perhaps capping clients at 40 or two per bedroom — so be it. But telling a successful homeless shelter it cannot expand simply because of unfounded fears and undocumented public safety threats is irresponsible.