Tent City in Hillsborough moves closer to reality

07/21/09 Seán Kinane
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A proposal by Catholic Charities to host a tent city for homeless people east of Tampa moved forward today. In a land use meeting, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-2 - against staff recommendations - to consider an exemption to housing and zoning codes.

Catholic Charities has proposed using 12 acres of church-owned land off East Hillsborough Avenue near I-4 for about 250 tents and 6-foot by 8-foot wooden sheds known as casitas. It would be similar to the Pinellas Hope tent city near Clearwater.

Lela Lilyquist is the director of Portamento of Hope Café in Brandon, which feeds homeless people three days per week. “This was a very, very big plus – to hear the positives from the County Commission for a change. So I’m very happy that they voted and [are] continuing this and they’re addressing the issue of homelessness.”

But not everyone was happy. About thirty opponents of the proposed homeless camp near the East Lake Park neighborhood attended the meeting. Some held signs reading “Stop Tent City.”

Ken Hagan and Kevin White were the two County Commissioners to vote against moving forward with the proposal. White says homelessness is an epidemic in the country but that a tent city is incompatible with the location, which is in his district.

“I think we need to keep, not only our neighborhoods, but we need to protect our children. We have people that are sexual predators, sexual deviants, alcoholics, drug users.”

But Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, disputes White’s description of the potential tent city residents.

“I was very disappointed in Commissioner White’s comments. And I’ll be speaking with him personally regarding those comments and help him understand the issues with regard to our homeless neighbors in our community.”

Frank Murphy also disagrees with Commissioner White. Murphy is president of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which includes Hillsborough County.

But Janet Reitler, who lives in East Lake Park, supports what Commissioner White said about changes that might happen to her neighborhood. "I think that his comments were right on target."

This week both the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times ran editorials recommending that the County Commission support the tent city, which is being called “Hillsborough Cares.”

County staff recommended against it and Commissioner Ken Hagan voted against the proposal by Catholic Charities.

“In my time here, I don’t think we've never had application that violates more policies than this does."

Hal Hart, who represented East Lake Park residents during Tuesday’s land use meeting, said that only five percent of Pinellas Hope residents still had employment six months after they left the tent city on the other side of Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough Cares is expected to cost about $2.5 million per year, according to the Tampa Tribune. But after contributions from aid organizations - especially Catholic Charities - are accounted for, $700,000 in public funds would still be needed.

Frank Murphy with Catholic Charities says that the 9500 homeless people in Hillsborough County are a “small city” whose needs have to be addressed – and the decision by the Commission could be the first step.

Crystal Grange, who lives in East Lake Park, carried a red sign reading “Stop Tent City” to the land use meeting. “I’m livid. I can’t believe that they would actually ignore the recommendation of every board.”

The Commission continued consideration of the rezoning to August 11 to give staff time to develop conditions for the zoning that would address the unprecedented request. The Board also directed staff to report back in 30 days with strategies on how to comprehensively address the issue of housing the homeless and to come back with revisions to the Minimum Housing Code and the Building Code to allow the temporary structures proposed for tent city.

Stop Tent City

Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County

Catholic Charities – Diocese of St. Petersburg

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