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NEIGHBOR'S COMPLAINT UPENDS FOOD PANTRY

A church must move distribution after years in a neighborhood.

The lines for free food are getting longer, the requests for financial help greater.

But just as the recession has deepened the need for its services, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. James the Apostle Church recently got this order from Pasco County:

Move somewhere else in the next 30 days - or shut down the operations.

That's because the society, made up almost entirely of elderly volunteers from the church, has been running the food pantry operations and help center out of a home on Monarch Drive, across the street from the church.

It turns out that running the operation in a residentially zoned neighborhood is a no-no under county ordinances.

That was news to the volunteers, who have been doing just that for nearly five years.

"When we came, we didn't have any problems with the neighbors," said volunteer Connie Reth, 81.

Just in the last year, the society provided 7,188 family members with services - everything from groceries to help paying power bills and prescriptions. In that year alone, volunteers gave away 5,544 bags of food.

All that on only two hours a day, four days a week.

But as the number of people showing up for help has grown, a neighbor complained to county officials.

Assistant zoning administrator Lee Millard said he was unaware of the pantry operations until officials received the complaint.

"We're sympathetic to what they're trying to do," he said, "but it is a real zoning violation."

The church bought the nearby house from a deacon in 2003.

Before they moved into the home, the nearly 25-year-old society had run the pantry out of the church. They say they had numerous logistical problems.

For one, meeting rooms were often shared with other groups. Food was kept in an outdoor storage shelter, meaning the elderly volunteers often had to lug the food in and out a distance. (Besides that, they say, the food got infested with bugs one time and, on another occasion, was snatched by a thief.)

Volunteers say the operation has run much more smoothly since they moved to the house, where the food is now kept in the garage and private rooms are available for conferences between the clients and volunteers.

In the past year or so, they've listened to the stories of people now losing both their jobs and their homes.

"He's lost his job, she's lost her job. What do you do? They've still got bills," said Eveline Pozniak, a 75-year-old volunteer.

The society, which is funded with private donations, keeps confidential files on clients, who generally qualify for food once a month and financial help with bills once a year. In a typical month, the group spends about $5,000 to help with bills and buy food that is not donated.

Because the society gets no government money, clients have fewer hurdles to qualify for help.

"We do not judge," said Reth.

"We err on the side of generosity," said Pozniak.

But for neighbor Janice Reiser, the pantry's operations have turned into a nuisance.

Reiser, who for eight years has lived in a home only about 20 feet away, said in an interview that as the place got busier, she started to notice problems.

Shopping carts that the pantry uses ended up against her house. A line of clients waiting to get inside stood near her property line, almost out to the street. She said she's counted as many as 19 cars parked on a strip of church-owned land across the street.

"This is not a commercial area," said Reiser, 70, who filed the complaint with the county. "I don't mind their having that as an office. But they have that whole building (the church) across the street! Give your damn food out over there!"

Church Pastor Mike Cormier said returning the society's operations to shared space at the church may be the only option. It isn't clear yet where the food will be stored.

The timing of the forced move is the difficult part. Society president John Bland, 82, said new people are showing up constantly for assistance.

Some of them, he said, are referred by the county.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

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