Proposed homeless shelter for families stirs passions

Efforts to aid Pasco County’s homeless population are shifting from a homeless shelter for single adults to a shelter for families only.

The goal is to place homeless families in permanent housing as soon as possible. That is a significant change from the initial focus one year ago on a “navigation center” with wraparound services for single men and women.

The effort now has a new name, too. It’s no longer being called a navigation center. Instead, it will be called the Housing Services Center.

Whatever it is called, some area residents still don’t want any shelter in their neighborhood. Others are unhappy with the change in focus.

Don Anderson, chief executive officer of The Homeless Coalition of Pasco County (File)

And, some are ready to welcome the shelter as a first step in the right direction.

About 100 people attended a public meeting on May 16 in New Port Richey to learn more about the new concept, and to offer comments.

Cathy Pearson, Pasco’s assistant county administrator for public services, and Don Anderson, chief executive officer of The Homeless Coalition of Pasco County, led the discussion.

Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey also attended.

She said she came to listen and learn. “This is not a subject I know a lot about,” she said.

Anderson defended the decision to operate a families-only shelter.

“We believe families are highly motivated to get into housing because of the number of children,” said Anderson.

The shift also would save the expense of hiring 24/7 security guards, he said.

The goal would be to place families in permanent housing within 30 to 60 days, with an average stay at the shelter around 45 days.

An additional six to 12 months of services would be provided after families leave the shelter.

Families are defined as one or two adults, with at least one child under age 18.

A year ago, another public meeting was held to discuss the initial proposal for a homeless shelter for adults.

“We felt it was time to update our citizens,” Pearson said.

The shelter, if approved, would be housed in one of two buildings at 8239 Youth Lane, off Little Road in Port Richey. The second building would become the offices of the homeless coalition, which currently operates in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood on Pine Street.

The Youth Lane address formerly was home to the Boys & Girls Club, which vacated the site in 2016.

The updated presentation included a video and a power point slide show. As many as 70 social service agencies and organizations are partners with the homeless coalition, and support the Youth Lane shelter.

Passions ran high
More than 40 people spoke during public comment.

Opponents who live near the shelter site said they worry about increases in crime and a loss of property values.

Ann Archer Corona found it troubling that the shelter plan seems to change “minute-to-minute. We all feel threatened. I find it to be a big threat.”

She said housing values would drop significantly, if the shelter was to open.

Some who supported the initial plan to aid single men and women objected to the new focus on families.

“We are losing out on all those opportunities for the chronically homeless who are at risk of dying on the street,” said Kassie Hutchinson. “We’re ignoring a huge part of our population. Once again, we’re reneging on something we promised.”

Anderson said the coalition and its partners planned to increase outreach efforts for homeless adults. While no single adults could stay at the shelter, he said efforts would be made to find housing resources for them. But, he added, “There are limits to what we can do.”

A two-building campus on Youth Lane in Port Richey is the proposed site for a homeless shelter for families.

Pearson said it is still a goal in the future to fund a homeless shelter for single adults. “They won’t be forgotten,” she said.

Other members of the audience supported the new concept as a step in the right direction.

“Housing is the only known cure for homelessness,” said Daniel McDonald.

Every homeless person is someone’s son or daughter, sister or brother, he said. Leaving people homeless, he added, costs taxpayers money for providing public services.

“This (the shelter) is a bargain for taxpayers,” McDonald said. “It’s money well spent.”

The homeless coalition’s new proposal also found support from a once skeptical source – owners of an adjacent retail plaza, anchored by Hobby Lobby.

Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln, who represents the shopping center’s owners, said, “We’ve been concerned about the project since it started moving forward last year.”

The budget for the initial plan didn’t seem adequate, and the space at the site too small to handle up to 75 adult men and women, Lincoln said.

Housing families seems to address most issues, including public safety, he said. “We’re continuing to work with the leadership (at the homeless coalition) to make sure we know who the families are,” Lincoln said. “They have been very responsive. We will continue to work with them.”

Starkey said the county should be compassionate but also tough on some issues, such as panhandling.

“I have to bring a hammer and I have to bring a heart,” she said.

Anderson said the cost to remodel the two buildings on campus would be about $700,000. The coalition has about $680,000 from a federal neighborhood grant, with an additional $100,000 from Pasco County’s United Way.

Annually operating costs are estimated at about $350,000. All but $145,000 is already funded, Anderson said.

Additional grants and private donations will be sought, he added.

The Pasco County Housing Authority has pledged 50 housing vouchers, which can be used anywhere in the county as part of the Section 8 housing program.

Pasco has about 2,600 homeless people, based on the most recent count. More than 700 are individuals, with more than 1,800 in family relationships.

Shandi Vargas was among a handful of people who put a face to the plight of Pasco’s homeless population. She escaped an abusive marriage, but ended up homeless. She currently lives in a rented room and has found an internship.

She is working toward living again with her three children.

“I’m a single mom trying to fight for her children,” Vargas said.

A homeless shelter for families probably would have kept her family intact, she said.

Even as she struggles with her own situation, Vargas said she volunteers to help other homeless people, and people at risk.

“Let us come together and figure out a solution, and stop thinking all homeless are criminals,” she said.

The Pasco County Planning Commission, which makes recommendations on land use issues, will review the proposal on June 6 in New Port Richey.

The final decision is up to the county commissioners, who will hold a public hearing on the matter June 19, also in New Port Richey.

Published May 23, 2018

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