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Lake County domestic violence shelter seeks approval to house more residents
Orlando Sentinel - 1/24/2020
Jan. 24--A Lake County domestic violence shelter is seeking to increase its capacity more than a year after residents were hastily relocated to avoid a code compliance violation.
Lake County commissioners will consider a request Tuesday from Haven of Lake and Sumter Counties to replace the ordinance that currently allows the housing of 14 temporary residents with another that caps at 120 people. Residents stay at the shelter an average of 45 days.
The Lady Lake shelter has been operating for nearly 20 years with about 40 residents at a time but were notified by the county's code compliance department in October 2018 that the shelter is zoned for 14 people.
Eighteen families were quickly moved to shelters in other counties or, in some cases, set up temporarily in a budget motel.
Since then, the shelter -- the only provider in the area -- has had to turn away more than 700 people who called its 24-hour hotline seeking help, according to executive director Kelly Smallridge.
"What is going to happen if somebody gets killed, let alone a child?" she said. "It's very possible some have gone back to their abusers. If you have no money and nowhere to go ... what's the lesser of the two evils in that moment when you don't have anything?"
The zoning request also calls for the addition of an animal shelter on the property for pets that belong to residents. Studies have shown that domestic violence victims may hesitate leaving their abusers because of fear for their pets that remain behind.
But the shelter's requests face opposition from neighbors, several of whom told the county's planning and zoning board earlier this month that an influx of residents would create safety issues for the community.
"The reason these people are there is to hide from these predators. Those predators can very likely come to my driveway, my community's driveway," said Sara Dawson, who lives next to the shelter. "That's bringing those violent predators to our community. For us to take on 10 times more the risk is unacceptable."
If approved, the shelter plans to expand in three phases but there is currently no extra funding available so it could be years before another dormitory and the animal building is constructed on the property.
"I just need to get things back to normal right now," Smallridge said about resuming their standard number of intakes.
Other neighbors voiced concern for the women and children who they said can regularly be seen walking down the rural county road to the nearest convenience store.
Smallridge said those concerns are valid because the road doesn't have sidewalks or street lights, but Haven is not meant to be a prison setting and residents are free to leave at any point.
"That is a dangerous road to walk on but I can't stop people from walking on it," she said.
The planning and zoning board voted 5-2 for approval Jan. 2 of the shelter's request.
Board member Rick Gonzalez said he understands there are many concerns from the community that he "strongly recommends" Haven address but ultimately sees "a greater good that needs to be done here."
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