By B.C. Manion
While Pastor Tim Mitchell of Chancey Road Christian Church may feel compelled by his faith to take in the homeless, the Pasco County Commission has rejected the church’s bid for a permanent 50-bed homeless shelter.
Commissioners opted instead to go along with county staff’s recommendation to allow the shelter to continue operating for a year, with a maximum of 35 overnight guests, contingent on the church abiding to a long list of conditions.
The vote to grant the one-year shelter came on a motion on May 8 by Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
Mulieri initially had sought approval for the church’s request, but that bid failed on a 2-3 vote, with Mulieri and Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand voting yes, and commissioners Jack Mariano, Henry Wilson and Ted Schrader voting no.
When Mulieri changed her motion to allow the temporary shelter, Schrader switched his vote to a yes.
In seeking a permanent shelter with 50 beds, Clarke Hobby, an attorney representing the church, said his client had agreed to a list of conditions intended to address neighbors’ concerns. “We’re providing the maximum protection we can for these folks,” he said.
The church has been operating a shelter without a permit, but its pastor said he was not aware one was needed until the church drew up a long-range plan, which called for a 120-bed shelter.
The church has since decreased its request to 50 beds, which exceeds the maximum number of people it has ever put up on a single night, Hobby said.
The attorney said the church is addressing a community need.
“My hat goes off to the church for stepping up to do the right thing. I think it’s the morally right thing to do,” Hobby said, noting there are no homeless shelters in East Pasco County.
Hobby said the church addressed concerns about the homeless loitering in the neighborhood by prohibiting walk-ins to the shelter. The church now picks up the homeless at a site on US 301 and returns them there in the morning. It also requires them to stay indoors, except for one 10-minute smoke break each hour at night until 10 p.m., he said.
“The people are only in there to stay the night,” Hobby said. “They are not in the neighborhood to have an adverse effect.”
Two women who previously stayed at the shelter spoke in favor of the request, and Hobby submitted a petition with more than 600 signatures supporting the church’s request.
But the majority of speakers spoke against it.
Michael Barnard, of 3619 Lanier Road, said it’s unlikely anyone signing the petition lives near the shelter. “It’s very easy, if you’re outside of the situation, to be for it. Who wouldn’t be?”
Other neighbors voiced concerns.
Rosemary Johnson, who lives on Chancey Road, put it like this: “I don’t feel near as safe in my home as I once did.”
And she raised another objection: “I think it brings down the value of my home. It makes it harder to sell.”
Mary Jo Reilly Wingo, who lives on Lanier Road, noted: “They’ve been running that shelter for about two years. They knew what they were doing was wrong.”
Wingo also pointed out that the church is on a septic system that would be overloaded by a shelter housing 50 people.
Some residents cited rising crime rates.
Frank Kolske, who lives on Chelsea Road near the church, said his home was burglarized about three years ago and his military memorabilia was stolen.
County zoning administrator Debra Zampetti told commissioners that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office responded to 19 calls at the shelter during 2010 and 51 calls in 2011.
This year, Hobby said, there have only been two.
Eric Johnson, of 12638 Morgan Road, was unimpressed: “If I were running the shelter, I wouldn’t call the police, either.”
A tripling in the crime rate, Johnson said, “demonstrates a clear degradation to the safety of the community.
Grace Barnard, who lives on Appaloosa Trail, said there have been burglaries, vandalism and stolen mail.
She expressed concern about the safety of the neighborhood’s children, especially those attending nearby Chester Taylor Elementary.
“There is a need for a homeless shelter,” she said. However, she added, it should not be at Chancey Road Christian Church.
“The church does not have the proper facility. The county needs to find a more suitable place for the homeless,” Barnard said.
Schrader asked the church what assurances it could provide the obviously skeptical neighbors.
“How do we give them confidence that if we give you what you want, that you will comply?” Schrader asked.
Hobby said the church must comply with the conditions for its permit, or the county could revoke it.
Mariano said he didn’t see how the county could approve the church’s request.
“Frankly, I don’t see how you can just let this go. We’re talking about people who don’t feel safe in their homes. I think the planning commission got it right, by not going forward,” Mariano said.
“The crime rate is triple. Home values will deteriorate,” Mariano said.
“What they’re doing is above their pay grade. Granted, their intentions are good,” Mariano said.
“This is about zoning. Does it work there?” Mariano said, before he and two other commissioners decided it does not.