Sunday, September 06, 2009

Hillsborough County is to be commended for giving a proposal to help the homeless the attention it deserves. In the last month, officials have worked to salvage a plan by Catholic Charities to build a "tent city" for the homeless east of Tampa. The tents may not be ideal, but they are a start toward addressing the worst homeless problem in the state.

Catholic Charities proposed building a camp of 250 tents and casitas, or wooden sheds, on church-owned land near where Hillsborough Avenue connects with Interstate 4. The complex would also include a community building where tenants would eat, bathe and receive life-skills training. Modeled after a similar program the church runs with success in Pinellas County, the tent city could offer temporary housing for about 1,000 people a year. Residents would have a safe, healthy environment in which to rebuild their lives and find jobs and permanent homes.

The effort stalled this summer after a county hearing officer ruled the tents did not meet minimum housing standards. Residents near the proposed site also complained the tents would lower their property values. The commission was right to dismiss both obstacles. County staff is now rewriting the housing code to expressly permit homeless camps and other such temporary housing. The wording is narrow enough to serve the homeless without weakening the housing standards countywide. Church officials have agreed to tighten oversight of the camp. They are also open to making physical changes to the site to improve security and transportation.

The church's commitment could help Hillsborough better care for its 10,000 homeless, the largest number of any county in the state. County commissioners were right that the bureaucracy should not stand in the way of a good idea. The project is not a done deal. Commissioners need to be open in working with the church to get this tent city, and perhaps another, off the ground. But they were right to side with this admirable project instead of with those who denigrated the homeless. The homeless are here, they are our fellow residents and their dignity and safety deserves consideration.

An editorial from the St. Petersburg Times published September 4, 2009

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