Opening doors of hope for the homeless

The Pasco County Commission has approved funding to renovate a former Boys & Girls Club, and reopen the campus as a navigation center for the county’s homeless population.

An administrative building and a teen center, at 8239 Youth Lane in Port Richey, will be refurbished with about $600,000 in federal and state money.

The goal is to open the navigation center by mid-2018.

The center will serve as a “low-barrier” homeless shelter. Its larger purpose, however, is to find housing for homeless men and women, and deliver support services for job searches, job training, education and health care.

Pasco County will dedicate about $600,000 in federal and state grants to rehabilitate the former campus of the Boys & Girls Club on Youth Lane in Port Richey. It will be the site for a navigation center to help homeless people restart their lives. (File)

It will be the first time the county has opened a homeless shelter, and embarked on such a major initiative. The center is modeled after one in San Francisco.

“Navigation centers work,” Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore said. “This is a community effort. This is a people’s building. This is a citizen’s building. I need everybody to come together. Let’s pool resources together and get something done.”

Moore is chairman of the Homeless Advisory Board.

Commissioners heard from about a dozen people during public comment. Speakers were passionate, with most of them supporting the navigation center.

Suzanne Chicon has volunteered for the annual count of homeless people in Pasco. Among the people she met was a man who lost a good-paying job for health reasons, and a young woman who had aged out of the foster care program.

“Some of the things I witnessed horrified me,” Chicon said. “We need the (navigation) center as a focused area to help these people.”

But, the location of the center is raising alarm bells for some residents who live in the nearby subdivision of Crane’s Roost.

Valerie Schaefer told commissioners she had spoken with all but a handful of residents in the 89-home neighborhood. Most are worried about increasing crime, solicitations and lower property values, she said.

“No one in the neighborhood is against the humanitarian (purpose) of the navigation center,” Schaefer said. “But, they are concerned. They are very scared. They are very angry over this proposal…We have skin in the game. We live here.”

Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey supports the navigation center but said, “I need a report in a year or two on how it’s going.”

Only Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano voted against the navigation center. He supports the concept, but not the location.

“I just don’t like the setup,” he said.

He backed off a previous suggestion that a hurricane shelter in Hudson would be a better site, agreeing that it would be too remote. But, he offered a new idea – building tiny houses on land with access to U.S. 19.

Starkey was willing to consider such a project, but only if the houses were dispersed through the county.

Pasco has more than 3,000 homeless people based on an annual count. About 500 are considered chronically homeless. Many of the homeless individuals live in about 100 camps identified by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office countywide.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco supports the center.

“The sheriff’s office cannot solve this problem,” he said. “It’s a health care issue, but unfortunately it falls on the shoulders of law enforcement. What the (homeless) coalition wants, we’re going to go with. I think the coalition is heading in the right direction.”

Commissioners gave initial approval to the funding and the location for the center on June 20 in New Port Richey. A final vote on the project is scheduled for July 11 in Dade City.

The funds would be dispersed after Oct. 1.

Commissioners will be asked in September to transfer the county property to the Homeless Coalition of Pasco, which will manage the navigation center.

The goal is to work with one camp at a time. Homeless individuals would live at the navigation center on average about 90 days, said Raine Johns, the coalition’s chief executive director.

They would be given “wrap-around” services, and personalized case management for about 12 months, through a coalition of partners, including United Way of Pasco and the Pasco County Housing Authority.

As many as 75 single adult men and women would be housed at the center. They would get help in finding jobs, job training, education and health care. Housing is a priority.

The county’s housing authority has pledged 75 housing vouchers to the program.

“There is such a big change in a person’s life when he does have a place to live,” Johns said.

Homeless people are living in cars and in the woods, she added. “You are creating a cycle of poverty because people don’t have a safe place to live.”

Published June 28, 2017

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