Tampa Friars Encouraged by Vote on Homeless Project

George Corrigan, OFM Friar News

Andrew Reitz, OFM, and the friars of Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, Fla., have been keeping the Province apprised of recent county hearings to approve more housing for the area’s large homeless population. George Corrigan, OFM, provides this most recent report of activities by the county commission on July 21 to keep the project moving forward.

TAMPA, Fla. — Sacred Heart Church, located downtown, remains at the front of advocacy for the homeless of Hillsborough County, which is reported to have the highest per capita homeless population in the country.

The county’s estimated 10,000 homeless — twice as many as the larger metropolitan areas of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Jacksonville — make up one-sixth of Florida’s total street population.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg has been among the area’s leaders in responding to the growing homeless situation. More than 2.5 years ago, the diocese opened Pinellas Hope, a temporary tent city to provide a place of security, safety and rest for the economic and persistently homeless. Pinellas Hope then quickly began to offer social and legal services, caseworkers and a variety of support services to help people find stability and pride in their lives.

Eighteen months ago, Andrew, who is pastor of Sacred Heart, asked the diocese to create a similar project on the other side of Tampa Bay. The same thought had been on the mind of Bishop Robert Lynch. A 17-acre tract of land was available and owned by the diocese. It was initially intended as the home of Good Shepherd Parish, but as the area was rezoned industrial and commercial, the parish was built in another location. Located on a major bus route, the land presented a great opportunity for this project.

Working Behind the Scenes
I have been active behind-the-scenes in association with the diocese, recruiting key parishioners and civic leaders to advocate the county commissioners and staff, enlisting the aid of one the area’s premier zoning attorneys to represent the diocese pro bono and communicating the issues and opportunities to the parish at large. In addition, the parish’s young adult singles group has undertaken a regular Saturday meal preparation for the homeless in the downtown Tampa area.

Part of the communications effort has been the use of the parish Web site to inform parishioners of the issues of homelessness, the specific issues faced by Hillsborough County, and the proposal for use of the diocesan land.

After more than a year of preparation, the county scheduled a formal land use hearing on the zoning proposal to use the diocesan land to establish the temporary homeless shelter, Hillsborough Cares. With the entire friar community present, Sean O’Brien, OFM, was the voice of Sacred Heart, speaking of our experience in providing shelter for the homeless on the church property and the inadequacy of that response.

Both the county staff and the land use hearing officer recommended against the proposal in what a July 6 editorial by the St. Petersburg Times called “a victory for bureaucracy over common sense.” It said that the land use officer reported being “hampered by the lack of an appropriately defined use in the Land Development Code.” As the hearing officer noted, the county is obligated under its own policies to address homelessness, yet it has no process to accommodate transitional housing. The land use also faced virulent opposition from a nearby residential area, whose citizens have been active in opposition to the diocesan plans.

County Commission Votes
On July 21, the full county commission met to review the application. Sean continued to witness to the need and the goodness of the proposal.

As reported in “Hillsborough officials’ sudden interest in homeless camp riles opponents” by Chandra Broadwater of the St. Petersburg Times, “They didn’t say no. And that was enough for supporters of Catholic Charities’ tent village project to hold out hope for a ‘yes’ in the future.”

In a surprising 5-2 vote, Hillsborough County commissioners directed their staff to review county law and define what is needed to approve the project.

The work on behalf of the Hillsborough Cares homeless project is by no means done. But the friars are encouraged that the county commission is positive and proactive in finding a way for the community to initiate and begin this sorely needed effort.

The above photo of Sean is courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times.

— Fr. George, a parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Church, has been ministering at the parish since his May 2007 ordination to the priesthood.