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Loss of shelter for vets points to need for plan

The demise of a proposed shelter for homeless veterans in west Pasco doesn't diminish the need to assist the thousands of people living on the streets or in cars or crashing with acquaintances around Pasco County. Rather, the St. Jude's Veterans Resource Center's failed plan to turn a vacant church into transitional housing should serve as a lesson that curbing homelessness takes more than a kind-hearted idea.

The veterans project, a proposed 30-bed facility to be housed in the former Immanuel Lutheran Church off Ridge Road, was doomed by, among other things, an inadequate business plan, improper zoning and neighborhood objections. The charity's founder, Morson Livingston, an ex-U.S. Army chaplain and former Catholic priest, exacerbated the public skepticism by declining to address questions about his own background that included sexual harassment allegations in the military and personal financial troubles as a civilian.

After the Times reported on Livingston's military and financial history, volunteer board members distanced themselves from St. Jude's, the purchase contract for the church property was canceled and Living­ston withdrew his pitch for a $400,000 county grant. Though a formal vote was delayed this week, the Pasco Commission is poised to strip the center of its funding at a future date.

Moving the homeless from the street to transitional housing to a permanent place is more complicated than putting a temporary roof over their heads. As the Rev. Dan Campbell, president of Joining Hands Community Mission and head of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County Inc., points out, many homeless people don't know how to budget money, fix a nourishing meal, be a skilled parent, or rid themselves of substance addictions. They have no sense of community unless its with another homeless person.

That's why the county's 10-year plan on homelessness calls for multiple centers to provide counseling, education, life-skills training and other resources to increase self-sufficiency. It aims to bolster employment opportunities and push prevention via help with rental and utility payments, transportation and other assistance.

"It's never quick, simple or cheap to fix,'' said Campbell, "but it's even more expensive to do nothing.''

Indeed. That's what makes the St. Jude's project most troubling. Had the nonprofit succeeded in obtaining government money for a facility that had an enormous likelihood for failure, a limited public resource would have been wasted at a time of growing need.

On any given day, more than 4,400 people are homeless in Pasco County, not counting the nearly 1,800 kids in Pasco's public schools who live in somebody else's home, a number that has more than doubled over the past three years. Likewise, the chronically homeless — people who are homeless for at least one year — is up to nearly 1,600 people, a 40 percent jump since 2008. Pasco County helped prevent the numbers from worsening, by using federal stimulus dollars to help 900 families in the rapid rehousing program.

That money, however, is exhausted and the public can't afford potentially costly detours from superficial proposals. Pasco County is correct to look for another grant recipient with a broader vision that extends beyond motivation and includes accountability and good faith.

Loss of shelter for vets points to need for plan 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 10:53am]
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