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ALL EYES ARE ON TENT CITY RULING

Many residents countywide worry about a change in the land development code.

They're watching and waiting and wondering. Could a tent city near their homes be next?

"It seems like it could happen anywhere," said Bob Minthorn, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton.

As East Lake Park residents continue their fight against a plan to create a tent village next to their homes at the intersection of Harney Road and Hillsborough Avenue, residents like Minthorn in other areas of unincorporated Hillsborough County are concerned about what could happen if commissioners approve the project.

The way they see it, potential changes to housing and land development codes will affect neighborhoods all over the county.

Commissioners have directed the county staff to rewrite the housing code to allow homeless camps, such as the one proposed by Catholic Charities near East Lake Park, and to work with the nonprofit to determine what's needed for approval.

If commissioners vote in favor of housing up to 250 people at the 12-acre site, then they will change the land development code so that other potential projects like it will be considered legal in the future.

Currently, such camps are not allowed. Commissioners expect to make a final decision on the tent city in October.

"I'm concerned, and so are people in the circles I travel in," said Mariella Smith, a Ruskin activist.

She thinks the proposed site can't sustain up to 250 people at all times. She also said that putting homeless residents in tents, and not some type of permanent housing with adequate services in a proper location, will only set up struggling people for failure.

Aside from addressing homelessness, another issue at hand is the way zoning and planning changes are made, she said. In this case, she calls the county's response a "knee-jerk" reaction.

"We might as well toss out the land development code, the comprehensive plan and the entire system of zoning hearings, if (decisions) are not going to be based on sound planning principles and what works for communities regardless of who's asking for it," Smith said.

"This decision in reaction to Catholic Charities affects neighborhoods all over the county with unforeseen results."

Homeless advocates say that temporary, emergency housing is desperately needed. Hillsborough County has the highest homeless population in the state, and a tent city would provide food, a safe place to sleep and access to services for about 1,000 people a year.

If approved, the proposed tent city in Hillsborough would mirror a tent city Catholic Charities operates near Pinellas Park, called Pinellas Hope.

In two years of operation, Pinellas Hope has served more than 1,300 homeless residents, helping 56 percent get jobs and move into some type of permanent housing, the nonprofit's leaders said.

But while a tent city seems like a good idea in theory, placing one near a neighborhood just isn't fair, said Minthorn, the Gibsonton resident.

A few years ago, his community experienced unintended consequences of a homeless outreach center that has since moved to another location. Initially, he and other members of the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton supported the center, but they were later at odds with the group when clients started wandering through a nearby neighborhood, he said.

"People were having things disappear from their yards, and little kids were getting approached by drunk men asking for money," he said.

Because of that, on behalf of his group Minthorn has since written commissioners letters, sharing their experiences and opposition to the proposed tent village.

"We're about 20 miles away, but we can empathize with their situation," he said. "It could set an awfully dangerous precedent. Who knows what's going to come up next?"

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

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