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Carla Traister: Myths and Realities of Bunnell’s Cold-Weather Shelter, and Flagler’s Homeless

| January 30, 2011

bunnell cold weather shelter

Appearances to the country, it's not black and white.

Flagler County’s cold-weather shelter, located in Bunnell, has been drawing some criticism for attracting homeless people to Bunnell. The criticism is so far vague and anonymous, though Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson acknowledged it earlier this week in a meeting of the Bunnell City Commission. Carla Traister, the director of the shelter, addresses concerns and dispels misconceptions in the following column.

By Carla Traister

I would humbly like to end the misinformation about The Sheltering Tree if I could. The Sheltering Tree is a part of the Flagler County Family Assistance Center (FCFAC) and it is a cold weather shelter in Bunnell, located in a meeting room of the First United Methodist Church on North Pine Street.

carla Traister bunnell flagler county sheltering tree cold weather shelter

Carla Traister (© FlaglerLive)

I am at the First United Methodist Church six to seven days a week. Our secretary and pastor, FCFAC and the Sheltering Tree’s board Chairman, Lee Willman, several volunteers and donors are at the church at one time or another seven days a week working in some capacity for the Cold Weather Shelter. We are open only when Bunnell’s temperature falls below 40 degrees. Last year, that was 40 nights.

We do not allow anyone to sleep there or live there when the cold shelter is not open. The bathrooms are open 24 hours a day to allow them to use the facilities and to sponge bath. We feel it is important for everyone to have restroom facilities available at all times. We would hope you would feel the same and consider what would occur if they were not available.

There have always been homeless in Bunnell. We are not attracting them. They were there before we opened the cold weather shelter. The 17 percent unemployment rate has adversely affected Flagler County, consequently it is affecting the number of homeless. Flagler Beach and Palm Coast have a larger homeless population than Bunnell. Being homeless is not a criminal act.

We will not turn away people because they are homeless. They are welcome to spend time at the church when they cannot obtain work there. There is a bench in front of the church and a courtyard where they sit. We do not ask them to “hide” or come in the back way or stay hidden. They are not second class according to God or to us. (“Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me also.”) There is no place further down than being homeless. To make life even more difficult and ugly is not our philosophy to follow. We can be either part of the problem or part of the solution and we are determined to be part of the solution. The Volusia/Flagler Coalition for the Homeless has said that Flagler County has the opportunity to prevent and end homelessness.

We do not bus homeless up and “let them loose.” When there are so many people at Halifax Urban Ministries in Daytona Beach that many are turned away from their shelters, they ask if we have room. Halifax Urban Ministries has its roots as a Methodist ministry. The shelters in Volusia County are primarily Methodist churches in Daytona, Deland, Ormond Beach and Orange City. They work with the Homeless Coalition to provide what help they can to the increasing numbers of homeless families and individuals. We feel that God does not recognize County borders. I am confident that if we had so many homeless in Flagler that they would open their doors for us.


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We take 16 to 20 “guests” who arrive from Daytona by a volunteer driver and a bus (and gas) donated by Ormond Beach United Methodist Church at 5:30 at night. They are provided a good meal (all paid for by volunteers and contributions), a cot in a warm room, clothing if needed, a hearty breakfast, and they are taken back by 7 in the morning. No one stays. I invite everyone to come and see what is going on and to please spend some quality time at the church (not just driving by), volunteering on Wednesday nights to prepare suppers, volunteering on cold nights or mornings to cook and actually meet and get to know these “frightening” people.

We have more and more women every time we open as it becomes increasingly difficult to keep employed in the service industry. We have more families with children and married couples than we ever had.

We provide as many services as we can, including transportation to Port Orange to help them get Social Security cards, refer them and bring them to the Family Life Center, the Salvation Army, Star Center, government services offices, doctor’s appointments in Flagler, Orlando, Gainesville and Daytona Beach, we help them get phones, driver’s licenses, identification cards, permanent housing, job resumes, referrals, motel rooms if necessary, gas, laundry vouchers, food stamps, Medicare, clothing, food, medical treatment, transportation to the hospital, housing while undergoing chemotherapy, bus tickets, and jobs.


Watch Charlotte Marten’s Profile of the Shelter
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Monday (Jan. 31) one of us is driving a 65-year-old old woman to Orlando to catch a flight to Holland where her family is waiting. We have provided temporary housing for a family of five these past two weeks. They will now be at the Star Center in Daytona. It is not possible to list all that our volunteers do to help these men and women.

We have nearly 200 volunteers throughout the county, from many churches, agencies, and individuals with no affiliations spending time and resources to do what they can with what they have. And, in turn, the homeless have changed us forever and enriched us all.

I hope that no one has to experience the fear, confusion and desperation and eventually resignation that we see every day from the homeless. It is an incredibly difficult position to climb out of once you are in. Please know that I am aware of the addictions and mental illnesses that some of the chronically homeless suffer with. I am also aware that some make very poor decisions. But after teaching school for 32 years, to think that every man and woman coming out of any school has average mental capabilities, has learned higher thinking skills, has an enriched cultural background, has been taught good work ethics and have all gained wisdom to succeed in life would be a little naive.

We are actively looking for and working toward a facility where these services will be permanently located. We invite anyone to join with us in our vision.

Carla Traister is the director of the Sheltering Tree. Write her at ctraister@cfl.rr.com or visit The Sheltering Tree’s website.

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13 Responses for “Carla Traister: Myths and Realities of Bunnell’s Cold-Weather Shelter, and Flagler’s Homeless”

  1. Kurt says:

    excellent job. bunnell is an awful city for sure but the people at this church are not to blame and if anything the city would be far worse without their services. i want to commend the volunteers and ms trister for their service. thank u flaglerlive once again a wonderful job!

  2. seaturtle33 says:

    Thank you for this meaningful article and for dispelling so many of the misconceptions about our homeless. Your words were greatly needed. Your shelter provides a wonderful service to our community and thank you for all that you do.

  3. Michelle says:

    Give those criticizers hell, Carla! You are doing an awesome job!

  4. Sal Pilchard says:

    Keep a watch on the money Lords at the Chamber of Commerce. They have a member that wants to eliminate The Sheltering Tree and tap into Federal Funds for the homeless. Mobile Benefits Program has the $ signs in their logo for a reason. You can find them on FaceBook. Their focus in on the business and money of the homeless. The Chamber always puts the money first and this group will cut down any thing that stand in their way.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Sheltering Tree is not what they want people to believe. I guess it has been a few years now since it st arted to my suprise. Started as a Food Bank. I’m all for helping people however, this is way out of control now. The people in the shelter do not leave during the day but hand around in the streets, neighborhoods,and als on linside the iron gates of the church which looks like there in prison, as well as hanging ourt in front of the church. They have also been busing people from Daytona to this facility as well as St. Augustine. It is my understanding the Red Cross pays money to the church for each person housed there daily. Wonder why they want this to continue? It has turned the entire beauty of a guite, quiant area into a blighted area including arrest for drug dealing, prostitution, breakin- ins etc. with the people haning out here. They are not a licesensed facility and are also acting as a somewhat rehab area . The same people staying here are the same people who hang out wandering the streets bumming smokes, beer money, etc. for years. Most of the locals came from a boarding house shut down years back across US -1 by the railroad tracks which was condemened an shut down due to drug use. Please find another location to house this facility as the good residents, and businesses in area are suffering. The old hopsital would be a great area or somehwere accross us -1 in a non residential- area which could work along with Stewart Marchman and other facilities hand in hand. to rehabilitaate and try to educate these people assisting in finding work to get them off the streets. Something must be done immediately as all our property values have been impacted as well as the security of our homes and businesses in the area. No one even wants to drive through this area unless necessary. I can’t believe this has been allowed to operate for two years and nothing has been brought out regarding the real story of whats going on.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Anonymous, why not put your name to your criticism? You’re being cowardly, you lack credibility, and you’re throwing out outright inaccuracies. A couple of quick examples: there is no bus from St. Augustine, and a grant from the Volusia/Flagler homeless coalition contributed around $1,500 to the church for its help with homeless people from Daytona earlier this year, but that money has run out. If you think you can run a shelter on $1,500 a winter, maybe you should be at the economic development summit this evening. They could use a genius like you. But you’d have to identify yourself for the record.

  6. pattip says:

    Well said Pierre

  7. seaturtle33 says:

    Bravo!!

  8. Merrill Shapiro says:

    Carla Traister is a beautiful woman, inside and out. That picture does not do her justice!
    Also among the unsung heroes of this effort are the members of First United Methodist Bunnell who foot the heating/lighting/power bill for the shelter. They are deserving of the highest praise along with their leader Reverend Beth Gardner. There is not enough space nor enough time to describe all the good that surrounds the Sheltering Tree! We’d be a poorer community without it.

  9. The First United Methodist Church’s food bank started as a small closet (The C.A.R.E Cupboard) beside the church secretary’s office several years ago as the economy was turning “south” to hand out non-perishable food to individuals and families that came to the church seeking something to eat. John Narkawicz worked to expand the food bank so that we could offer food once a week, and it has been operating every Wednesday morning to hand out food bags or bread. Many volunteers make this happen, some not even from our church. None of the volunteers for the C.A.R.E Cupboard volunteer at Sheltering Tree, and visa-versa although both willingly share food resources if an emergency situation arises for a family or individual. Please feel free to call our Pastor, Beth Gardner, or our church secretary if you wish to know more or donate food. (437-3258)
    Again, “we” do not bus anyone anywhere. We have no bus. Halifax Urban Ministries has a bus and driver “volunteered” for this effort. Please call Halifax Urban Ministries to verify this at 252-0156.
    The American Red Cross has never donated funds to The Sheltering Tree, but they have generously donated cots. If they are damaged, we will reimburse them around $38 per cot. To verify this, please call the American Red Cross at 437-5800. Because many of the homeless have difficulty with their knees and legs, sitting down on a low cot often bends the legs of the cots. Flagler Emergency Services has also saved us this year by donating cots. If you wish to donate heavy-duty cots, we would be eternally grateful.
    Please call Volusia/Flager Coalition for the Homeless for information on the grants that they have written so that we were able to get some reimbursement to help the Daytona overflow of homeless. Their help has been greatly appreciated. No taxpayer funds from the citizens of Flagler County have been used to help the Daytona guests. We have received help from the Volusia/FLAGLER Coalition for the Homeless.

    No one has ever been arrested for prostitution, drug dealing or break-ins at the church, although one person was arrested for not appearing in court on a designated date – it seems that it is difficult to find a homeless person to receive mail because they have no physical address.

    The First United Methodist Church faces the back of a bank, an abandoned home, a vacant lot and beside it is the back of Hansen’s furniture store.
    We have actively inquired about acquiring/renting both abandoned old hospitals, the abandoned courthouse, the abandoned police station. We have been told they are not available by the owners and the county/city. To purchase a facility is beyond our means. If you wish to visit our “books”, please make arrangements with our finance chairman, Richard Thompson. You will also find that almost all of the money spent on helping individuals and families comes out of our own pockets.

    The heating bill from December when we were open so often was $600. Just the heat; not the water, not the gas, not the wear and tear on the dishwashing equipment, and stoves and ovens, not the soaps and detergents, not the food, etc.. We reimburse the church for the expenses. The Sheltering Tree is humbly beholden to the brave, loving, accepting and generous physical act of the people of this church.

    None of the local homeless were living at the boarding house when it was shut down. We would dearly love to locate low-income housing units. Nothing would please us more than to have all the homeless individuals and families in this county living in a stable environment, drug and alcohol free, and employed. With the high unemployment rate, it is not unreasonable to assume that the last to be employed are the homeless, considering all that is working against them. Addictions, for anyone of us, are messy and complicated. Rehabilitation and employment is the final goal for us also, but it is expensive and not instantaneous. Please join us to help.

    We eagerly welcome anyone wishing to learn more about the short history of the Flagler County Family Assistance Center and the Sheltering Tree to call me at 517-7305 . Come visit the shelter when we are open and talk to the volunteers. I will be happy to give you the “Nickel Tour” of everything if you just want to see what is happening. Warm, rugged clothing, sleeping bags, tents, laundry vouchers (from Gwen, our church secretary), job offers, are all gratefully accepted.

    We are deeply grateful for the help of all the volunteers at the cold weather shelter. It exists because of them. EVERYONE – well over 200 including all the behind the scenes people – from the Hospital to the High School Future Problem Solvers – are volunteers. It is a community cold weather shelter. What goes on there is exciting, heart-breaking, fun, frustrating, rewarding and absolutely life changing. You cannot go away the same person that you were. Your entire perspective of the homeless is changed, your own personal values are changed – what truly is important in life. If you had to carry every important thing you own with you on your back, what would you choose? What becomes important when all you have is in a back pack?
    Thank you.
    Carla Traister

  10. Jenn Kuiper says:

    Thanks for all you do Carla! :) Miss you at FPC!

  11. Brenda says:

    The work that Carla Traister and her volunteers do is amazing. I never met such a big-hearted person. Thank you for all that you do; you are loved and appreciated.

  12. Denise Burnsed says:

    My family has lived in the neighborhood of SR100/US1 since the 40′s, so I am ACUTELY aware of how it has changed from pleasant, quiet, and safe to noisy, filthy, and unsafe over the years. Yes, there have been many causes for the current state of the neighborhood, but on the issue of the homeless, there ARE options, if locals are willing to insist upon them TOGETHER. Now, I tried writing a calm, “presenting-all-sides” kind of post about the homeless issue, but sometimes, you just have to say it as it is when you witness firsthand some of the things your aunt’s been talking about, such as men peeing openly in the vacant garage next to her while she’s out in the yard…how she has to call in a deputy at night to watch her enter her house and lock the door because a belligerent homeless person got angry when we said no to giving them cash, or worse yet-a RIDE…?… so here are my thoughts.

    Both sides in this debate already know that better places exist for this good work, but have been told “no”. Here’s two key thoughts to consider:

    To the Methodist church: you are already doing amazing good work for the homeless on Wednesdays. Insist-PUBLICLY-on sharing the responsibility for “the least of our brothers” with other LARGER churches-preferably in BOTH counties-so that the older Bunnell neighborhood in question won’t be weighed down any more that it already has been for all this time (they have already paid their dues. One obvious suggestion would be Mother Seton Catholic Church in Palm Coast. Anyone who has ever driven by that vast expanse of real estate KNOWS there is AMPLE room for housing 20 or so homeless folks there overnight.

    Sounds harsh, but let’s be real: is there really only this ONE church, in one neighborhood, willing to take on the physical responsibility for this good work (and not just hand over cash)? That’s pretty shameful. Aren’t other larger, tax-exempt churches willing to step up to the plate?

    The only neighborhoods that could possibly be affected by huge, wealthier churches allowing homeless people from other areas to be bussed in would be mostly wealthier neighborhoods. Maybe that is exactly what needs to happen. Once the complaints from wealthier people in higher property tax brackets start coming in to elected officials, those officials may have a way of feeling obligated to consider prior options others may have presented to them in the past…

    To the LOCALS of both Volusia AND Flagler counties, AND those working directly with the homeless coalition, please don’t take NO for an answer when asking about bringing old government buildings up to code, and back into use. Speak up, and most importantly, speak TOGETHER. Maybe I am a bit naive here, but if a government building which your tax $ paid for is lying derelict on government property that your tax $ supports, and is still under government control by officials being paid by YOUR tax $, then letting this valuable space sit quiet is a continued WASTE of your tax money. It can be upgraded to code and used-safely-as a viable homeless shelter. It really could be a source of PRIDE, and a great example to other places in the country.

    And do not let the excuse “we’ll have to raise your taxes to cover costs” or “codes would have to be met-who will pay for that?” get in the way. If even just a few of those churches who’ve been standing by the wayside could recruit volunteer manpower from members who are carpenters, electricians, painters, etc. , and cash from their wealthier congregation members, then that cuts costs for the project. It allows the church members to do the work their Savior calls them to do to begin with. It’s a win-win: congregations working directly with the local government to put a REAL solution into place. Can you all imagine the GOOD publicity, for a change, that this could bring Flagler County?

    It is a COMMUNITY that can fix this-or at the very least, take the heat off a neighborhood that has long past having “done their time’ on the issue. Reasonable solutions which would protect property values, personal safety, AND the dignity of all involved, whether homeless or not, IS possible…as long as you, together, insist that NO is not an option. Stand together, Bunnell. YOU CAN DO IT-together. Stay strong, stay vocal-and make sure you are a voter! Let your officials be aware that you are :)

    This old Flagler County girl prays for peace and goodwill-and a LOT of common sense- in ALL hearts while resolving this issue.. Bless you, Bunnell! Denise Burnsed

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