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Bowen: Pasco County tries to navigate pitfalls of homelessness

The Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County reported 2,512 homeless people in the county during its count in January including 418 considered chronically homeless. Additionally, the school district estimated 565 unsheltered children in 308 households. Pasco County and the coalition want to open a one-stop service center for the homeless known as a navigation center in the former Boys & Girls Club buildings on Youth Lane in west Pasco. Neighbors are objecting.
Times files (2013)
The Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County reported 2,512 homeless people in the county during its count in January including 418 considered chronically homeless. Additionally, the school district estimated 565 unsheltered children in 308 households. Pasco County and the coalition want to open a one-stop service center for the homeless known as a navigation center in the former Boys & Girls Club buildings on Youth Lane in west Pasco. Neighbors are objecting. Times files (2013)
Published Jun. 15, 2017

The descriptions ranged from criminals to drug addicts to alcoholics to panhandlers. At least nobody said bums.

Others characterized Pasco's homeless population as unemployed, down on their luck, parents, neighbors. Or simply, human beings.

The divergent declarations — none of which should be construed as entirely inaccurate — were tossed about last week amid a group of four dozen people hashing out the pros and cons of turning the shuttered Boys & Girls Club headquarters and teen center on Youth Lane in west Pasco into a center for homeless services.

Tim Knight sat near the rear of the room in the West Pasco Government Center and listened to the sometimes-emotional debate that stretched for 2 1/2 hours. Near the very end, he rose.

"I wasn't going to say anything,'' Knight offered.

Then he said it.

"I'm homeless.''

It put a human face on what had been a discussion about statistics, safety, quality of life, definitions of homeless camps and the benefits of intensive social services versus the perceived detriment to a residential neighborhood and nearby business owners.

Knight, 39, works. He is a handyman and can do electrical work, but he is not licensed. He had been scheduled to finish a job the day after the meeting. His pay would be $250. But he forks over $70 a night for a room in a shabby motel.

After getting something to eat and washing his clothes, there isn't much left, Knight said.

He also told me about his past drug problem and how he lost his previous place to live. He said he violated the lease by allowing a longtime girlfriend stay with him after she was released from jail. She had nowhere else to go.

Consider that irony. She would have been homeless if he hadn't tried to help.

Court records document Knight's own troubles. Arrests for drug possession, petty theft, failure to appear, resisting arrest and domestic battery complaints. But, nothing for the past 18 months.

If the center is open, is it something Knight would use?

"Absolutely,'' he said.

Knight's employment makes him largely better off than many of the people who are projected to be clients of the so-called navigation center — a one-stop resource owned by the county and managed by the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County. It is intended to take people from outdoor homeless camps and provide them with short-term housing, case management, job training, financial planning skills and other help before they head to a separate place to live. The Pasco Housing Authority is setting aside 50 vouchers under the federal Section 8 program to make a supply of reasonably priced housing available.

There are plenty of people in need. The coalition reported 2,512 homeless people in the county during its count in January, including 418 considered chronically homeless. Additionally, the school district estimated 565 unsheltered children in 308 households.

The federal government defines chronically homeless as people living in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven or in an emergency shelter, and who have been residing there for at least a year or at least four times in a three-year period.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office counted approximately 100 homeless camps across the county. The idea of the navigation center is to bring in those camp residents one group at a time to try to get them off the streets and on their way to permanent housing. The center would be secured by either an off-duty deputy or a private security guard and would be available to take in people 24 hours a day.

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Everyone at the meeting lauded the goal — though the sincerity of some certainly stretched credulity — but many questioned the location. The site, northwest of Little and Ridge roads, is a half-mile from the main entrance to the Crane's Roost neighborhood and is near the rear of a shopping center anchored by Hobby Lobby and a Walmart Neighborhood Market. The west and north are buffered by vacant land that formerly served as the county landfill.

Nearby residents suggested a more rural locale for safety reasons or, failing that, a more affluent site so the homeless could be closer to jobs. In other words, someplace else.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, the lone commission dissenter to this proposal, offered the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter off Denton Avenue in Hudson as an alternative. Of course, that presents its own problems because there is no public transportation route serving that site.

The unease among the home­owners is understandable, but likely will be superseded by the end result.

"The more we can help the homeless,'' said Raine Johns, the coalition's executive director, "the more we can help the community as a whole.''