Friday, July 24, 2009

Doing the right thing for homeless:

This is what happens when altruism clashes head-on with policy.

With the possible exception of contracting a fatal disease, is there any fear worse than the prospect of losing one's home, one's future, to have one's dignity literally thrown into the streets?

The homeless. We see them every day, under bridges, panhandling on street corners, pushing grocery carts filled with what is left of their lives. And even the most comfortable among us certainly pause, if only for a moment, to ponder: "There but for the grace of God …"

Most of us like to think of ourselves as caring, charitable, loving people, which is an easy enough self-image to adopt until property values get involved.

It seemed a perfectly natural extension of the core mission of Catholic Charities to propose to use land owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg to create a tent village to provide temporary shelter and support for upward of 250 homeless on 12 acres near Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road east of Tampa.

With more than 10,000 homeless struggling to survive in Hillsborough County, the 250 people Catholic Charities seeks to help is a drop in the bucket.

But there was just one problem, or two, or hundreds.

Citing various zoning policies the project would violate, county planners and a hearing master recommended the County Commission deny Catholic Charities their homeless village. And it also didn't help the project's prospects that residents, especially those living in nearby East Lake Park, loudly objected to having a bunch of homeless folks taking up residence so nearby, citing fears of crime and a decline in their property values.

Or put another way, the poor in spirit might well inherit the kingdom of heaven, but a campsite on Hillsborough Avenue is another matter entirely.

Indeed, the commission had all the political cover public officials could dream of to deny Catholic Charities its plans to assist the homeless. The project was a zoning law cluster kerfuffle. The folks armed with their rules and regulations and policies were all saying no, no, no. The residents of the area, who also go to the polls on Election Day, were in opposition.

This was a nay vote served up on a golden platter.

But then the Hillsborough County Commission did an extraordinary thing. Yes, the same commission that historically has been little more than a cabana boy for development interests. The same commission that has more often than not shown less spine than Laurel and Hardy's cowering stint in the French Foreign Legion.

The Hillsborough County Commission did the right thing.

By various turns a number of the commissioners began to suggest that the homeless problem in our community transcends treating it as if this was merely a homeowner association flap over the color of a mailbox.

"They're not animals," an emotional Mark Sharpe said. "The homeless are you. They are me."

And Jim Norman, a lobbyist for the Salvation Army, argued that while the commission could well deny Catholic Charities their request to provide relief to the homeless, "They're still going to be in this community. There is never a right location."

No, there isn't. Jim Norman is quite right.

To be sure, this is a textbook, classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) moment.

The residents and merchants who decry the Catholic Charities proposed homeless sanctuary are not insensitive, selfish louts. Their concerns regarding an increase in crime and the impact the tent village will have on their hard-earned property values are more than fair and understandable.

There are no heavies. Only equally, albeit conflicting interests.

Disregarding the findings of the bureaucrats and the howls of resident protest, the commission voted to direct county staff to figure out a way to help Catholic Charities win approval of the homeless village.

The decision didn't sit well with the homeowners, which might suggest blessed are the land-use lawyers, for they shall inherit clients.

What are we to do with the least amongst us? Do we continue to tolerate a community roaming the streets that is hungry, ill-fed, ill-clothed, without hope, without a roof?

Or do we extend a hand? Provide shelter? Try to help?

There are no easy answers. For these are uneasy times.

In a rare moment of social enlightenment, the Hillsborough County Commission rose above the temptation to do the expedient thing, the easy thing and instead did the proper thing.

Perhaps Commissioner Kevin Beckner said it best when he observed, "The face of homelessness continues to change."

For today's East Lake Park homeowner could just as easily be tomorrow's welcome guest of Catholic Charities.

By Daniel Ruth, St. Pete Times Correspondent

Published Thursday, July 23, 2009

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