Tampa sets up tent city so homeless can shelter in place

Across Hillsborough County, families are hunkering down at home, hoping their isolation will keep them safe from the coronavirus.

That isn’t an option for the county’s homeless.

With a county-wide order for people to stay indoors now in effect, the city of Tampa is establishing a tent city that will allow up to 100 homeless people to shelter in place.

The city will pay Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg $120,000 to run a temporary homeless camp for the next 30 days. One hundred tents have been pitched and fenced-off on a site that will also include mobile shower trailers, a mobile laundromat and six portable toilets. Its residents will get three meals a day and, if needed, medical treatment.

The homeless are considered at high risk for the coronavirus, in part because they often have poor health. Making matters worse is that their makeshift life-support system of park restrooms, libraries, coffee shops and gyms where they can wash and shelter are now closed.

“We realized we had homeless people on the street as resources started drying up and they would not be able to access food and things they need,” said Vanessa McCleary, the city’s housing and community development manager.

The camp will be called Hillsborough Hope, after Pinellas Hope, the shelter ministry that Catholic Charities set up in Clearwater in 2007 after police officers slashed tents at a homeless camp near downtown St. Petersburg.

“In Tampa, we help each other in times of need, and Hillsborough Hope is a perfect example,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor in a text. “As we all stay safe at home, Hillsborough Hope, in coordination with a host of community partners, is providing shelter to 100 homeless individuals in our community that have no place to go. The sooner we start taking care of each other, the sooner we can get through this together.”

The shelter will be open to any homeless person except for registered sex offenders. Those who turn up will be screened for the coronavirus. Anyone presenting with symptoms will be referred to BayCare Health System, which has kept some test kits aside for the homeless population, McCleary said.

City officials had some concerns about putting people in tents but were advised by county health experts it was safer than an indoor shelter.

“They’re not all breathing the same air,” said McCleary.

The shelter was put together in little more than a week. Shrubs and bushes were cut down and the site was sprayed for mosquitoes. Electric and water connections were put in place and plans made to handle security and garbage. Temporary floodlighting and fire extinguishers were installed. It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that the first tent was pitched.

“In a week, we’ve done what it would normally take a year to pull off,” said McCleary.

The camp will go only part way to protecting the county’s homeless. Hillsborough has about 1,600 homeless people, according to the 2019 point-in-time count. The results of this year’s count have yet to be released but about 650 people in the county do not have any shelter, McCleary said.

Homeless people will be referred to the camp by law enforcement once it opens Monday. The city is not disclosing its location for safety reasons.

Maggie Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities, expects word will also get out among homeless people and the camp will fill up quickly.

She and McCleary were among a dozen people working to get the camp ready Saturday afternoon. Mattresses donated by Ashley HomeStore were placed inside the 10-foot key lime green tents, which are spaced about 5 feet apart. Tents will only house one person each.

Those who are accepted will be given a numbered wrist band that corresponds to the number of their tent. Catholic Charities is also supplying them with water bottles and hand sanitizer. The camp will have a 5 p.m. daily curfew and residents are expected to adhere to the county’s Safer at Home order.

“They will be told if you don’t return tonight, someone else will want your bed,” Rogers said.

People who bring in alcohol or drugs will be bounced from the shelter. Security at the site will be provided by the Tampa Police Department.

About 60 percent of homeless people who stay at Pinellas Hope end up in permanent housing. Up to six case managers from there will work at the Tampa camp to help residents with mental health and substance abuse issues, and with finding work. Catholic Charities plans to look for a site to make Hillsborough Hope permanent.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Rogers said.

To help residents of Hillsborough Hope, Catholic Charities is asking for donations of toiletries, deodorant, underwear, toilet paper, shoes, cleaning supplies and prepared meals and ready-to-eat breakfast items like cereal/granola bars, which can be dropped off at 2021 E Busch Blvd. between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cash donations can be made at www.ccdosp.org/covid19/ or by texting “novelcorona” to 91999.

[This article by Christopher O’Donnell appeared originally in the Tampa Bay Times and is used with their permission.]