Concerns about Pasco’s homeless population creep into public discussions with more and more frequency these days but now county leaders are preparing a solution, and may borrow a page from Pinellas County.
They’re looking into creating housing using small manufactured containers to create a village for homeless people that would provide them shelter.
A Pasco site could hold 100 to 150 people to start and would also be run by a nonprofit, but county officials don’t have any details yet. Catholic Charities runs a similar center called Pinellas Hope.
The topic came up last week during a meeting of county and west Pasco city leaders to discuss issues they have in common, including the growing number of encampments of homeless people.
County commissioners and several City Council members from New Port Richey said they favored developing a “pallet village.”
Cathy Pearson, Pasco’s assistant administrator for public services, said the county’s homeless population has grown to between 300 and 400 individuals scattered in more than 50 camps, with 80% on the west side of the county. The number of homeless senior citizens also has grown.
She said she anticipated that during this year’s budget planning she would ask for $1.5 million in county money to get the ball rolling on a solution. She said the county is already looking at a few properties where such a village could be constructed using buildings already located on them for additional services. Pearson also noted that the manufactured units used for such projects can also be made into dining halls, showers and bathrooms to serve the community.
Since 2019, Pasco has spent millions of dollars and worked with a variety of private charities, including the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County and Catholic Charities, to provide emergency housing, rental assistance and other aid programs.
But the primary model for addressing homelessness is to provide permanent housing, Pearson said.
She presented the elected leaders four options, including creating tent cities, providing a mixture of housing structures, opening a single large building or incorporating modular individual buildings, and it was the last choice that got support. Pearson said she wants community buy-in too.
Pearson also liked the idea of creating a community of individual container homes that could possibly be grouped around needed social services, such as group kitchens or medical services. Tents are flimsy and need to be replaced frequently. One large building presents sanitary challenges, she said.
“We have to do something,” she said. “We can’t keep going with the 50-some camps.”
The next steps, she said, are to find a property that the county could purchase and to work out an agreement with a nonprofit to operate a pilot village of different-sized homes. Similar developments are found around the country, and one company provides a shelter that can withstand storms, provide heating, cooling, lighting, enough room for a single bed and a private space for an individual resident. Each small pallet, at 64 square feet, would cost about $15,000.
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County officials questioned whether most of the county’s homeless came from elsewhere and where their real problems were related to drug abuse, mental health conditions or criminal histories. Regardless of the reason, Pearson kept coming back to the same solution, which was finding the homes and providing services.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who has been vocal on the issue, said she looked forward to seeing if a pilot program could work and if the county could find the right nonprofit to pull it off.
“We have to have a place to take people,” she said. “They cannot stay on someone else’s property.” While Pearson talked about town hall meetings and gathering input, Starkey said believes there will be buy-in by the community.
“I think citizens would like to see some of these camps moved,” she said.