Hamburgers that will be provided to several homeless personnel cook on the charcoal grill at the Ozanam Homeless Shelter, New Orleans, La., Nov. 25, 2013. A small group of Marines and civilian Marines dedicated their time and generosity by cooking and serving hotdogs and hamburgers at the Ozanam Homeless Shelter, feeding over 300 homeless personnel within the city. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mackenzie Schlueter/Combat Camera MARFORRES/Released)
The Bradenton Herald
Aug. 16—BRADENTON — The Manatee County Commission has pumped the brakes on moving forward with a partnership that would provide affordable housing for homeless veterans after considering how it could impact the surrounding area.
In April, a nationwide veterans organization pitched its plan to build up to 130 apartments for former service members who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. At the time, commissioners said they were fans of the idea, but the board last week said it needed more information before giving a green light.
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which aims to provide supportive housing for veterans across the nation, asked the county to donate land at 6610 Cortez Road West, where the county’s Utilities Department is based. The organization hopes to provide housing for 2,000 veterans this year, according to its website.
The organization plans to offer wraparound services on the property, including therapists, employment programs, addiction resources and more. The complex is also slated to have 24/7 on-site security. Tunnel to Towers has similar developments in Arizona, California and Texas.
But board members say they aren’t convinced that the housing complex for homeless veterans won’t lead to complaints from neighbors. Commissioner Van Ostenbridge asked the board to hold off on approving the land donation until county officials could hold a town hall on the subject.
“My concern is for the neighborhood and businesses in the surrounding area. I need some kind of proof in the pudding, assurances and recourse. We’re not building a Neal Community here,” Van Ostenbridge said, referring to the development company founded by former state lawmaker Pat Neal.
“Let’s be straight up and quit pussyfooting around the issue. We’re doing a homeless transition site.”
Manatee seeks feedback on veteran housing
Commissioner Jason Bearden, a U.S. Marine veteran, said he was not sold on the facility’s management plans and pushed to delay the land transfer until county officials had a chance to meet with other organizations that provide similar assistance to veterans.
“I think, as a board, we have to do the due diligence, to shop around and get public comment on this,” Bearden said.
The board voted to delay the hearing for up to six weeks in order to host a town hall meeting to seek feedback from residents. That town hall has been scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Utilities Department Administration Office, 4410 66th St. W., Bradenton at 10 a.m.
Van Ostenbridge advertised the meeting as a discussion about a ” West Bradenton homeless shelter” in his District 3 newsletter and in a Facebook post. On Facebook, residents criticized the official for a “misleading” description of the proposed affordable housing complex.
“I’m honestly genuinely confused,” one user commented. “I thought the proposal on the table was for affordable housing for our veterans, who certainly deserve our county’s thanks and support.”
“I am not sure why this is listed as a Town Hall for a West (Bradenton) Homeless Shelter,” another user wrote. “Isn’t this the program that Tunnels to Towers Foundation would be overseeing as transitional and affordable housing for Veterans?”
Speaking with board members, Gavin Naples, vice president of Tunnel to Towers, assured the board that the complex would be a first-class facility.
Commissioner George Kruse will also host a town hall meeting at the Braden River Library, 4915 53rd Ave. E., Bradenton at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
The Manatee Board of County Commissioners is expected to revisit the idea of gifting Tunnel to Towers the 8.7-acre parcel, which is valued at $6.6 million, before the end of September.
“I completely understand the fears associated with something of this magnitude, but the Tunnel to Towers Foundation has made it its real mission over the last 20 years to provide housing to veterans, first responders and Gold Star families,” Naples said. “We don’t do anything unless we can see it to fruition.”
Veteran housing on hold for now
Other commissioners said they were ready to approve the organization’s request, pointing to the existing shortage of affordable housing and the county’s earlier commitment to support homeless veterans.
“We have thousands of veterans that are out there that are homeless, on the verge of homelessness and have needs. We need to meet their needs,” said Commissioner Mike Rahn, who is also a U.S. Marine veteran. “We owe it to them, as a society and a nation, to meet their needs.”
“You’re acting like they’re going to put in some fly-by-night management company that’s going to run it into the ground and have homeless people sitting on the curb,” Kruse told his fellow board members. “I’m questioning how many town halls you want to have before we approve homes out east. I’m wondering if you concerned yourself with what the residents in the surrounding area of that district felt when we readily approved those.”
Manatee County officials first came up with the idea to provide housing and other resources for homeless veterans in January 2021. At the time, commissioners promised to set aside $15 million to remodel the Old Jail in downtown Bradenton and provide those services themselves.
But a closer inspection of the building revealed that the plan would not be feasible, according to county staff. Earlier this summer, county officials voted to demolish the Old Jail instead.
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