By B.C. Manion
A crowd of more than 200 jammed into Chancey Road Christian Church last week to weigh in on a church proposal for a 120-bed homeless shelter.
The vast majority of those attending the meeting support the church’s request.
Two additional meetings are set on the request for a conditional use permit. The Planning Commission will take up the issue on Wednesday, Feb. 8; and, the Pasco County Commission on Tuesday, March 6.
The church, at 34931 Chancey Road, has eventual plans to build a 7,600-square-foot structure to house the homeless shelter, said Clarke Hobby, the attorney representing the church.
The church has been operating a homeless shelter for about two years, with about 30 to 40 people staying there each night, including some families with children. It is the only homeless shelter on the east side of the county.
Tim Mitchell, pastor at Chancey Road Christian Church, said the church provides an “overnight, emergency, hand up, not hand out.”
A handful of neighbors voiced concerns at last Thursday’s meeting, but the overall tone was one of compassion for those needing the community’s help.
Lea McKenney, who lives in Lake Bernadette, said she walks her dog at Zephyr Park, where she has encountered people who stay at the shelter.
“I walk my dog every morning. One day, when I saw a family and some others huddled around a little barbecue that had fire going, to get warm, I felt I needed to talk with them.
“It was about 40 degrees, so I got some hot coffee and some hot chocolate for the four little kids, ages 2, 5, 8 and 15.
“I’ve interacted with those people every day since. They are, except for the grace of God, me. Every one of them.”
Kelly Lewis, who lives on Appaloosa Trail not far from the church, said she supports the shelter but is concerned about potential negative impacts on her neighborhood.
She said her mail has been stolen and she has seen drunken people walking down the block.
“I just want to make sure that it’s not going to spill over into our neighborhood,” Lewis said. “I have young children.”
Another woman, who said she lives nearby, characterized the church’s efforts as a noble cause. However, she said she is concerned attracting undesirables into the neighborhood.
That comment drew a retort from another woman, who chastised the speaker for labeling anyone as being undesirable.
The pastor acknowledged that the church gets lots of traffic from people needing help.
“There’s a lot that happens here,” Mitchell said. “We’re giving them groceries, we’re giving them hygiene products, we’re giving them job referrals, we’re helping them pay the rent, we’re helping them pay their phone bill.
The Samaritan Project has an office at the church, providing assistance with rent, utilities and job referrals, Mitchell said.
“People are hurting. Honestly, it could be anybody in this room. You could be next,” the pastor said.
Carol Scheckler, a board member on the Samaritan Project, has watched the evolution of the church’s mission to help the homeless.
“Back in ’09, when Tim first opened the cold-weather shelter, my husband and I did some volunteering. We had one person show up.”
The next time, she walked through a homeless tent city and invited people living in about 40 tents to come to the church for a warm dinner, warm bed and warm breakfast.
No one took her up.
“The ones that you are seeing, that are walking the streets drunk, are stealing and are doing all of the damage, are not the people in this shelter,” Scheckler said.
“You need to stop stereotyping homeless,” she said. “These children did not make this decision to be homeless. It was the hand that they were dealt.”
Doyle Springfield, who lives on Pinto Lane, applauds the church’s efforts.
“The problems that we’re having on Appaloosa Trail and Lanier aren’t coming from this church,” he said. “I’m a retired police officer. I’m a very nosy neighbor.
Some of the problems that people are witnessing stem from neighborhood residents, Springfield said.
“I’m not one of those, ‘Not in My Backyard,’ because, folks, this is my backyard. My hat’s off to the pastor,” Springfield said.
Hobby said the church wants to be a good neighbor.
“For those of you all that have concerns, please contact me, please email me, please call me at my office. I do want to hear specifics from you all. We may come up with a great idea, talking together, that will help alleviate some of your problems that you’ve had in the past or that you might have in the future,” Hobby said.
The attorney said church officials did not realize a conditional use was needed for its shelter until it began drawing plans for the new 120-bed facility. That’s when a county staff member informed the church’s engineer that the permit was required, Hobby said. The church didn’t realize a government permit was needed because it considers helping the homeless part of its core mission, he said.
The county first received complaints about the church operating a homeless shelter in June, according to county records.
The county issued a cease-and-desist order to close the shelter in December, after fielding complaints, but county staff did not enforce the order after Commissioner Pat Mulieri asked staff to look into the issue.
Mulieri said the shelter is being allowed to continue operating until the county considers the conditional use permit.
Mulieri, who chairs the county’s Homeless Advisory Board, also said she plans to push for a change that would allow cold-weather shelters to operate without permits when the temperature dips below 50 degrees. Currently, that standard is 36 degrees.
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