NEW PORT RICHEY — Immigration opponents traveled from across the Tampa Bay area Wednesday to protest the expansion of a youth shelter in southwest Pasco County that is housing unaccompanied minors from Central America.
The Pasco County Planning Commission was scheduled to hear the request from Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which has operated the 16-bed shelter in Holiday since 2006. But the county’s planning staff asked to delay the decision until October — a move that didn’t go over well with people in the audience, who grew more irate with each passing moment.
“Illegal aliens invading our country is unconstitutional,” Shela Fite fumed. “We have homeless children in this country and homeless veterans who need our services.”
The shelter used to house elderly disabled adults, but Jewish Family Services closed the facility in 2012 when it lost funding for the program. The nonprofit social services agency won a federal grant earlier this year from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services, to provide temporary housing for boys aged 8-17 who are being reunited with family members already in the country. The first boys arrived in June.
The nonprofit wants to double the shelter’s capacity to 32 beds.
“This home is a block from my house,” Cynthia Scheu said. She didn’t want immigrant children attending local schools, and she opposed the two month continuance. “This needs to be settled before these kids get on school buses.”
Other speakers referred to the boys as criminals, gang bangers and squatters.
Twice, planning commission members tried to cut off public comment, but Chairman Chuck Grey refused to end the hearing. He tried to console the immigration opponents by assuring them that a vote to grant the delay is a procedural matter — not an endorsement of the shelter. He was the only member of the commission to vote against the continuance, which passed 9-1.
“Unfortunately in my eyes, it’s a situation where the federal government has dumped this situation in our laps and we have to deal with it,” he said. “What I try to do is put myself in your shoes and say would I want this facility in my neighborhood. If not, I vote against it.”
The request will go back to the Planning Commission on Oct. 8. The county commissioners are expected to hear the issue on Oct. 21.