ZEPHYRHILLS — Two years ago, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and officers from three police agencies helped tout the recently opened A Helping Rock transitional housing shelter as a vital community resource and an asset to law enforcement dealing with east Pasco's homeless.
Now Pasco County has a new description for A Helping Rock's shelter: Illegal.
The county has filed suit to shut down the shelter, contending that it operates without proper zoning and that its on-site RVs and cabins are unsafe and do not meet minimum housing standards. The non-profit shelter, on Forbes Road outside the city of Zephyrhills, is a former 20-acre church camp and has housed up to 50 people in individual cabins, recreational vehicles and tents.
The suit, filed last month, seeks to bar the shelter from accepting new tenants and to require the on-site dwellings to remain vacant as tenants find housing elsewhere. As of April 3, there were fewer than 30 people staying on the site, said Eddy Reyes, A Helping Rock's founder and director.
The suit is scheduled to be heard May 6 in Pasco County Court in Dade City. If the court agrees with the county's request for an injunction, there will be no transitional housing shelter for homeless people on the east side of the county.
"That is the only resource we have,'' said Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, who sits on the non-profit's steering committee.
"Obviously, we need shelters, but you need them to be up to code,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore, chairman of the county's Homeless Advisory Board.
The legal action follows a November visit to the site by a team of county inspectors. Among their findings, according to the injunction request:
• Electric service "presents imminent life-safety hazards.''
• Plumbing, structural, electrical and mechanical work were done without proper permits and performed by tenants, not licensed contractors.
• RVs are not licensed or road-ready, as required by law, and have been modified with utilities and plumbing to be used as illegal permanent dwellings.
The land is zoned as an agricultural district, meaning single-family or manufactured homes are the only allowable dwellings. A church is permissible, but transitional housing is not.
The cabins and in-ground pool pre-date the county's 1975 zoning regulations, but the owners never sought permission to be grandfathered in as a "non-conforming use,'' the suit stated.
Reyes has his own questions. Notably, why didn't he get written notification about all this until the court filing? He said A Helping Rock was told verbally of violations, but never received anything in writing so it could begin repairs.
Reyes also wondered why A Helping Rock's building contractor couldn't obtain county permits to do repairs, saying it is contradictory to cite "imminent life-safety hazards'' in a November inspection, but allow the conditions to remain unchanged until a May court date.
"The issue here is A Helping Rock is not zoned for how it's operating. A permit cannot be pulled/issued for something that is not a permitted use,'' Tambrey Laine, the county's communications manager, said via e-mail. "Addressing safety violations on a property operating under non-permitted use is counter-productive. The immediate need here is to end non-permitted use of the property and protect the residents.''
Laine and the lawsuit stated that A Helping Rock was notified in two separate meetings, on April 25, 2017, and Aug. 29, 2018, that the land's zoning didn't allow for RVs, tents or transitional housing. Reyes said those meetings were intended to address the non-profit's plans to add additional dwellings, not the code violations.
"Shelters have never been welcome on the east side of the county,'' Reyes said.
A prior county commission voted seven years ago to shut down a transitional housing shelter on Chancey Road, and the east side of the county had no other similar facility until A Helping Rock opened.
The lawsuit also points out that shelter clients are charged a monthly fee for housing that ranges from $125 for a tent to $325 for an RV. The suit called the fees a "mandatory donation.''
Reyes said the rent payments are spelled out in A Helping Rock's operating guide. Those who are employed, but don't pay are directed to money-management classes to learn how to budget for rent expenses, he said.
"Our motive is not finances,'' said Reyes. "It's to prepare them for when they leave. It's the servant leadership model. It's a principal they need to get used to — to pay the rent between the 1st and 5th of every month.''
Failure to pay at A Helping Rock does not result in eviction, he said.
A Helping Rock allows homeless men, women or childless couples to remain on site for up to a year and they must obtain employment or volunteer at the charity's thrift store or on the grounds. The shelter holds an hour of prayer or meditation in the morning and evening classes in critical thinking, money management, health, the Bible and "celebrating recovery.'' They must meet with a case manager weekly, and A Helping Rock provides transportation to job sites or for grocery shopping, court appearances and medical appointments. The average stay is less than six months, Reyes said.
Countywide, a January count showed 688 people were unsheltered and living on the streets. But many more are at risk, according to data from the United Way of Pasco. Its biennial ALICE report — an acronym for asset-limited, income-challenge, employed — showed that 45 percent of the nearly 196,000 households in the county are below poverty level or earn less than the basic cost of living.
Reyes said he is hoping commissioners will intercede on A Helping Rock's behalf and kill the lawsuit so the non-profit can make necessary repairs and get zoned accordingly.
Reyes said the dispute with the county is unrelated to his own personal history. He served a year of probation after pleading no contest nearly a decade ago related to an accusation he swindled a woman out of $2,500 for a box that promised to give her "free satellite television for life," but stopped working two weeks after installation.
"Yea, I've been in jail,'' Reyes said. "But my greatest qualification for what I do (now) is my past history.''
Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Contact C.T. Bowen at email@example.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.