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Lack of parking threatens rescue mission

Pinellas Park says a g roup needs more spaces to continue serving hot meals .

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published January 9, 2007


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A Pinellas Park official delivered the bad news last week: the Haven of Rest Rescue Mission must find more parking spaces or stop feeding the homeless.

City officials say it's just a matter of rules. The mission serves food, and as such, should be treated as a restaurant and required to have sufficient parking.

For the Rev. Lionel Cabral, executive director of the Haven of Rest, the ultimatum reeks of harassment by a city intent on running the mission - and the homeless - out of town despite his organization's 18-year history there.

It's foolish to think the mission's few parking spaces aren't enough, he said. The homeless don't have cars; they arrive on foot and bicycle.

Besides, he said, there is nothing else open in the small strip center when breakfast is served between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. When the night meal is served, between 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., all the other businesses are closed except Bottles bar on the mission's east side, he said.

"We've been here for this long, the city should just grin and bear it," Cabral said. "God forbid they should make an exception."

It was the second affront to the county's homeless last week. The city of St. Petersburg ordered the St. Vincent de Paul Society, on whose property the homeless have pitched tents, to evict the approximately 140 people there or face fines.

In Pinellas Park, officials maintain that, far from harassing the mission, they have been patient and given Cabral plenty of time to comply.

The city wants Haven to prove it has the right amount of parking spaces or apply for a zoning variance to give officials a chance to decide if the mission can operate without that amount.

"I sent the guy there just to remind them because I want them to get the application in to us," Assistant City Manager Tom Shevlin said. "Essentially, they're not following through."

If anyone is at fault, Shevlin said, it's the mission, which has not been a good neighbor.

"We haven't bothered them. They have bothered the abutting property owners and businesses and neighbors," he said. "I think that's very fair to say."

Among the complaints, he said, are "people relieving themselves in public, drunkenness, sleeping in people's yards."

During the past year, police were called to the mission more than 600 times for such things as intoxicated person, suspicious person, open container, trespass and disorderly conduct. Many of the calls were police-generated by officers doing area checks and patrol, according to Pinellas Park police records.

Cabral said the complaints are blown out of proportion. Pinellas Park officials have lobbied against him with the neighbors in an effort to force the mission to move.

"They do not like the looks of the homeless people," Cabral said. "They're naive, thinking, 'Well, if we get rid of them, then all the homeless people will go away.' ... We are always going to have problems with the city because they have a different mind-set than we have."

The trouble started in 1988, when the mission moved in. City officials told the mission then there was not enough parking.

When Haven asked for a variance, the city denied the request. Haven sued and, in 1990, the case was settled when the St. Petersburg Times, which owned a building a few doors away from the mission, agreed to share its parking.

The city backed down, although having the group on the city's main street, Park Boulevard, was seen as an impediment to improving Pinellas Park's image.

In 2000, a homeless man punched Pinellas Park council member Rick Butler in the face. Butler, whose real estate office is next door to Haven, had stepped outside to go to lunch. Butler sported a black eye for more than a week and the homeless man, Edward Leon Walls, went to jail.

Sometime after that Butler erected a tall wooden fence to separate his property from the Haven.

Last year, the Times sold its building and the new owner refused to share parking with Haven. The city began asking the Haven to find more shared parking or apply for a variance.

Cabral said he believes Butler is behind much of the animosity, which is ironic considering Bulter serves on a county commission designed to help solve the homeless problem.

Butler denied the charge.

"I think that the minister has a real history of being confused himself," Butler said.

The city has not forced the mission to close, Butler said. It still can hand out box lunches and serve food elsewhere.

Cabral is the problem, Butler said, because he did not check into what would happen when the Times sold its building and has failed to apply for a zoning variance. Butler also blamed the Times, because it did not ensure the shared parking arrangement went with the sale.

"Don't drag me into this situation; I've done nothing but work on these issues," Butler said. "If I wanted them shut down, I probably could have done it many, many, many years ago."

While the two sides fight it out, many of those who need food could be forced to get it elsewhere.

That's tough news for people like Sheila Johnson, a Pinellas Park mother of three children, two with serious health problems.

Johnson said there are times when she cannot afford to feed her children so she goes to Haven about once a month to pick up food.

"It helps us out," Johnson said. "There's a lot of other families just like me. ... It's not just for the homeless. ... If they close, there's going to be times when my kids go hungry."

Cabral said that, in at least one respect, Johnson is typical of many of the Haven's clientele.

People mistakenly believe, he said, that most of the homeless come from up North and the city is caring for other people's problems.

Cabral estimates 294 people become homeless in Pinellas County every week, a total of 15,288 people a year.

"We're taking care of our own problems," Cabral said.

By the numbers

 

0

Amount of government assistance the mission receives.

 

30

Average number of breakfasts served daily.

 

60

Average number of dinners served daily.

 

300,000

Estimated number of meals provided annually through onsite service, food boxes and other donations.

Source: Haven of Rest Rescue Mission

 

About the mission

Haven of Rest Rescue Mission, 5625 Park Blvd., serves breakfast and lunch to the homeless, but also provides food boxes to the working poor. For information about the Christian-based nonprofit, call 545-8282.

What officials are hearing

Pinellas Park officials have received several e-mails critical of the decision to enforce the parking rules against Haven of Rest. Here are excerpts from some of them:

"Looks like the NIMBYS [Acronym stands for not in my backyard] are controlling the city council. Do you think if you don't feed these people they will go away? Shame on all who voted for this trumped up illegal issue. What the church is doing is not illegal, they are only out of compliance. You guys are nuts."

No name given

 

"Since when do homeless people have cars??? Whose bright idea was it to shut down the Suncoast Haven of Rest?? I want to vote these numbskulls out of office in the next election. I have seen this city do some dumb things in the past but this takes the cake."

Mr. Richard Lucci

 

"Good going guys . We would like to know the name of the intelligent person or people that made this decision so we can be sure not to vote for them when it becomes re-election time. I really hope you guys are not thinking that if you run all the homeless and poor people out of Pinellas Park that you will get some people with money to buy these old houses and live here because people with money go to Hillsborough and Manatee county to buy brand new houses."

No name given

Source: Pinellas Park

[Last modified January 8, 2007, 23:50:06]


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