HOLIDAY — The national debate over who should house the scores of undocumented children fleeing Central America has landed in Pasco County.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which has operated a 16-bed shelter on Darlington Road in Holiday since 2006, began accepting immigrant boys between the ages of 8 and 17 in June. The facility housed seniors with disabilities for its first six years.
It wasn’t until the shelter applied to Pasco County to double the number of beds to 32 that surrounding homeowners realized who their new neighbors were. A spokesperson could not provide information on how many boys live there now.
“I’m out here all hours of the day, and never did I ever hear children,” said Patricia Oliveira, who lives two doors down from the facility. Oliveira said she has nothing against children, but she’s “disgusted” by parents who allow their children to cross into the U.S. unaccompanied. “It’s wrong, it’s totally wrong.”
Oliveira wasn’t thrilled with the idea of the shelter expanding when she thought it was for disabled adults. When she found out that undocumented boys would be living there, she echoed the sentiments of communities across the country who don’t want the children shipped to their neighborhoods. “We can’t afford it,” she said. “They’re getting free health insurance, free food stamps and free schooling — they’re even bringing in Spanish-speaking teachers there. It’s not fair to us.”
The nonprofit social service organization, which has offices in Tampa and Clearwater, includes refugee services for youth as a key part of its overall mission to serve the region’s most needy. CEO Rochelle Tatrai-Ray said the agency met with a local civic association to try to assuage neighbors’ concerns.
“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,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Neighbor Bernie Soloman said he has seen a few protestors outside the shelter. “They were real nasty about it,” he said. “It’s just about fear. I mean, what can they possibly do to you? They’re children.”
Tatrai-Ray doesn’t want people to confuse the Pasco shelter with a holding facility for processing immigrants straight from the border. The kids at this shelter have already been fully vetted and processed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They don’t have criminal backgrounds or behavioral problems, according to the application to the county for expansion.
“The goal of this program is to find viable parents or close relatives of these children for reunification,” she said. “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.”
The federally-funded program is designed to provide “a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment for the physical and mental well-being of the children” for the boys for up to 45 days. According to the application, the shelter has at least one staff member for every six children; they’re on duty around the clock.
To provide those services, the shelter is slated to receive nearly $1 million through September and another $1.8 million for fiscal 2015.
“I know they’re getting a lot of money to do this,” said Jim Margentino, who has lived just down the street from the shelter since it opened. He isn’t opposed to their mission or to the expansion, but he questions the cost to taxpayers. “Is it on the up and up? How much is the government laying out for this?”
Maggie Philbin, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization, said the shelter has a $963,000 budget for the current fiscal year, but that doesn’t mean it will spend the full amount. The grant reimburses the shelter for its expenses, “and we strive really hard to keep our costs down,” she said. The 2015 grant is based on the shelter expanding to 32 beds. If Pasco commissioners deny the expansion, the shelter won’t get the full amount.
County planners initially recommended approving the expansion, but county commissioners tabled the issue until next month because of a separate legal issue. The county attorney’s office is researching whether Jewish Family Services is in compliance with the terms of the grant it received from Pasco County in 2005. The agency received just under $420,000 from the county’s Community Development Block Grant to build two 16-bed shelters in Holiday for “elderly disabled adults.”
The matter is scheduled to go back to the county’s Planning Commission on Aug. 6 for a recommendation and to the Board of County Commissioners on Aug. 19.