Shelter opened to undocumented immigrants in Pasco County; officials asking to expand

HOLIDAY, Fla. - A temporary shelter for undocumented children is up and running in Holiday.

An application submitted to Pasco County commissioners proposes to expand the facility.   Formerly a rehab facility, the building was recently turned into a temporary shelter for undocumented children.

Presented to commissioners July 9, the controversial application has drawn protestors to the facility and spawned debate in the community.  Many community members were unaware undocumented were living at the facility.

According to Doug Tobin, Pasco County government spokesman, the request is for a 32 bed residential treatment and care facility operated by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services Inc. located on the southwest corner of the intersection of Darlington Road and Chatlin Road. 

The location has previously been approved for a 16 bed residential treatment and care facility by the commission on July 13, 2004, for elderly residents. 

The Land Development Code defines residential treatment and care facilities as:

Any nongovernmentally owned and operated building, residence, private home, boarding home, or other place, whether operated for profit or not, which undertakes through its ownership or management to provide for a period exceeding twenty‑four (24) hours, housing and food services, personal services, and physical or mental health-care services for seven (7) or more persons who require such services and who are not related to the owner or operator by blood, marriage, or adoption.  Where consistent with this definition, residential treatment and care facilities shall include, but not be limited to, group homes; adult congregate-living facilities; homes for the physically, developmentally, emotionally, or mentally disabled; homes for abused children or spouses; runaway shelters; foster-care facilities; residential centers for drug or alcohol treatment or rehabilitation; orphanages; and juvenile detention centers.

Tobin explained the applicant is applying for a conditional use to increase the number of beds and would be a federally funded program (Unaccompanied Children Program – Office of Refugee Resettlement) that will provide shelter to children ages 8 to 18.

ABC Action News obtained the narrative submitted by the applicant laying out how the facility would be used.

The narrative states:

The Unaccompanied Children (UAC) Program at Chatlin House is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The mission of the program is to provide a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment for the physical and mental well-being of the children until they are timely reunited with their parents or sponsors. 

The program shall provide a safe shelter, home-like environment for male children ages 8 up to 18.  The program will have 24 hour staffing, 7 days a week.  There will be a minimum of 1 staff person for every 6 children, with a maximum of 32 children.  The children are expected to reside in the shelter for an average of 30-45 days. 

The children referred to this program by the ORR will have been assessed and determined not to have behavioral or criminal backgrounds.  The children referred to this program are expected to have limited English proficiency.  Therefore, the majority of the staff working in the UAC Program will be bilingual in English and Spanish.

The program will operate in the same facility as the residential treatment facility that operated in this location from 2006 to 2012.  The residential treatment facility was also operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  In comparison to the residential treatment facility, the shelter operation will not increase traffic, noise levels or have any other adverse impact on the neighborhood.  The number of staff required for this program is the same as the number required for the previous program at this location.  Staff will again work in three shifts, with overnight shift starting at 11 p.m.  There will not be visitors or other activity in the late evening hours or overnight.

The children will not have driver's licenses or vehicles. Therefore, the ten parking spaces should provide adequate parking for the staff and the 2 program vehicles.  While not expected, should the need arise for additional parking, space is available on the additional lot behind the facility.

The facility is and will continue to be managed by Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Services Center , an organization with offices in Clearwater. ABC Action News tried contacting Chief Operating Officer Anne Marie Winter several times Friday but did not immediately hear back.

The organization released this statement late Friday:

We understand the interests and sentiment of the neighbors and because of that we reached out to them last week. We arranged a meeting with the local civic association board to ensure that they could hear, first-hand, what this program involves and respond to their concerns. The board assured us they will try and work with us as we
facilitate this program. 
For Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, this is a humanitarian program and we are working with children who have no criminal record and were smuggled or trafficked into the country. We will be fully compliant with the law and our goal is and always will be, to be good neighbors while we implement this federal program.   
The goal of this program is to find viable parents or close relatives of these children for reunification. At this point in time, we are unable to furnish further information regarding the legal status of the parents or family members.  Additionally, there are privacy issues and so that limits our ability to share information.
We will continue to strive to work positively with the neighbors as the program moves forward.

ABC Action News also contacted Kenneth Wolfe, the deputy director of public relations at the Office of Refugee Resettlement based in Washington D.C.  He would not grant interviews nor give written approval for Winter to speak to us on camera.

U.S. Air Force veteran James McWhirter was enraged by the application and proposed plan. McWhirter, who is wheelchair bound, traveled to Holiday from his Land O'Lakes home to protest.

"What they are doing is ripping our country apart," said McWhirter. "I was so upset last night with everything that's been going on I couldn't sleep."

Neighbors in the area were aware the facility wanted to expand but did not know its intended use.

"I am uncomfortable," said Angel Cave, a mother of two who lives directly across the street from the facility.  "There are better things that could be done with our tax dollars in Holiday."

Tiffany Bowens has lived across from the facility for six years.

She said she is more upset that a meeting where the community can voice its concerns about the proposal will take place 45 minutes away in Dade City next month.

The mother of two believes a meeting should be held in the community that would be directly impacted.

"Half the people in this neighborhood, their vehicles can't even make it to Dade City, so it is not really fair," said Bowens.

County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey told ABC Action News the boys will not attend Pasco schools because of their short stay at the facility.

The Planning Commission is slated to hold a meeting regarding the application Aug. 6 at 1:30 p.m. in New Port Richey.

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