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County’s Closest Likeness to Homeless Shelter Scales Back Services and Access to Grounds

| November 9, 2015

For eight years, the grounds of First United Methodist Church have been a home to the county's homeless. That's about to change considerably. (© FlaglerLive)

For eight years, the grounds of First United Methodist Church have been a home to the county’s homeless. That’s about to change considerably. (© FlaglerLive)

For the past eight years the homeless in Flagler County have known of one place they can call home more than any other that’s not in the woods or under a bridge: the grounds and courtyard of the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell. There, the homeless have been able to keep locker-type boxes for their belongings, use a rest room at all hours, relax in the church’s interior courtyard, and even smoke on the grounds.

Most of that is about to change. The church is removing the boxes, closing the courtyard to the homeless, and closing access to the bathroom—which volunteers have been stocking and cleaning—except for Wednesdays and Sunday morning. That may mean that the homeless, who have congregated in and around the church for years, may now be more visible in the community at large. The Sheltering Tree, a non-profit organization that’s run most of the services for the homeless at the church—including the homeless shelter that opens overnight whenever the temperature falls to 40 or below—will now be charged $150 a month for the use of two rooms on the ground, rooms used to store cots and clothing that’s distributed to the homeless.

“They don’t want those people there anymore,” says Carla Traister, who chairs the Sheltering Tree board and calls herself the bathroom cleaner (she’s also paid for most of the supplies). “They feel that we’re enabling them and that by providing a bathroom and a place to wash up we’re keeping them from being able to be independent, and there’s no reason for them to be getting a job because they’ve got everything they need.”

First United had built a reputation as the county’s friendliest venue to the homeless when it was under the leadership of Rev. Beth Gardner, who left the parish in early summer after 15 years. She is now the pastor at College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland. Gardner was replaced by Rev. Terry Wines, who’s been reviewing the church’s direction, listening to parishioners—some of whom object to the presence of the homeless on the grounds, though that’s nothing new—and contending with difficult finances since the 2008 downturn, though he says the finances have nothing to do with policy changes.

Wines says he is no less committed or passionate about the homeless ministry. He points to his experience in levy County, where he was instrumental in establishing a full-time outreach program where the homeless and others in need could be “processed” and have access to numerous services. Flagler County has something similar in Access Flagler, the every-other-month Friday event at Cattlemen’s Hall at the county fairgrounds. A more permanent system is not in the works for now, says Joe Mayer, who heads flagler county government’s community services operations.

Fairly or not, that leaves it to places like First United and the Church on the Rock in Bunnell, which provides laundry and shower services to the homeless every Thursday, to shoulder much of the responsibility for homeless. Patience is running out for the current approach.

“There are always going to be some who are not going to be happy with a homeless ministry,” Wines said this morning, before a meeting with Traister to further discuss the new approach. “What I found after a three-month review of talking with many people in our congregation, the greatest frustration was that we didn’t have a structured ministry, and while the ministry is very well intended and the compassion is there for the ministry, there hasn’t been enough structure, in other words the ministry hasn’t evolved as the homeless problem has evolved.”

Wines’s intentions are to look at a broader picture and connect with local non-profits to help the homeless. The church itself isn’t closing its doors to them. The soul café that provides a free meal every Wednesday evening will still operate, and when staff is on the grounds, no one will be denied access to the bathrooms, he says. But there will be necessary limits. “Unfortunately we have to deal with the real world and we have a property that we are stewards of,” Wines said. “we have to be concerned with the safety of the people who come on our property, and if we just open the doors and there’s no one here and someone gets injured, hurt, assaulted, there’s no way we can help them. There’s no way we can protect them, there’s no one there to call the police, there no one to be an advocate for them.”

Gardner declined to comment, saying that to allow a healthier transition it would not be appropriate to discuss the new leadership.

The homeless ministry at the church has contended with resistance from within and without over the years. On past occasions, Gardner withstood immense pressure from Bunnell businesses and some residents to close the ministry. Community meetings with opponents of the shelter defused the opposition, and the city, along with its police department, eventually became a close partner. The ministry has carried on since 2011 quietly and steadily. Now it’ll have to find a new way of providing its service. That role will include the church, Wines stresses.

“I was appointed here because there was a need to reach out to the homeless and to other people in this area who feel are marginalize,” the pastor said, “and all we are trying to do right now is to sort these things out and to see how the church, working with the Sheltering Tree, can try to do that. Unfortunately you have to look at the big picture of things. But if the church isn’t open, then we can’t do homeless ministry.”

“There hasn’t been any advancement at all” regarding the homeless in the community, Wines continued. “It’s frustrating to people who don’t want anybody to get any help, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstrap’—that stuff drives me crazy—but there’s also a problem when you’re just driving on compassion, if you don’t have a plan, if you don’t know where you’re going, then we’re just putting a band-aid on the problem.”

Traister says the Sheltering Tree is on the lookout for a new facility or area where it could provide some of the services that were available on the grounds of the church. Nothing has turned up so far. She can see why certain people want the homeless to be more responsible for themselves. But sometimes that’s not possible: they wouldn’t be homeless otherwise. “We’d like them to be more productive but for the chronically homeless, that’s really hard to expect of them,” Traister said. “It’s hard for us to understand and it’s hard for them to know why.”

Traister added, “The hardest thing for me is that we’ll lose the relationship we have with the homeless. I don’t know how stupid this is, how ridiculous this sounds, but they don’t have a whole lot of ties to different parts of society, and I feel like we are abandoning them. But I know that Terry Wines, the pastor, he is something different, and it’s not going to be a negative thing, but there’s just this in-between place, and time, that’s just stressful for us.”

The next Access Flagler event will be December 4th at the Cattlemen’s hall at the County Fairgrounds, from 1 to 4 p.m. Free Information & Services Available: food, clothing, haircuts, tax preparation, WIC, health screenings, SNAP (food stamps), free phones for hearing impaired and much more. The event is sponsored by Pastor Charles Silano, Grace Tabernacle Ministries and the Flagler County Division of Human Services. For more information call: Pastor (386)586-2653 or (386) 931-4158 or Janet Nickels: (386) 586-2324 ext 323. See the full Flagler County Resource Directory below.

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24 Responses for “County’s Closest Likeness to Homeless Shelter Scales Back Services and Access to Grounds”

  1. Lance the Libertarian says:

    We should ship them to Putnam County and drop them on the courthouse steps.

  2. Anonymous says:

    cut off the problem at the source for sure…..im sure they were slowly destroying the property as well

  3. Banjomatic says:

    The homeless numbers will grow and, at best, form into some type of collective society as good jobs and wages continue to vanish.
    Companies will continue to make products that are smarter, greener and shinier but they will cost more and more and the markets will have fewer and fewer buyers.
    Government will redistribute wealth and will be very efficient at taking and quite vague about giving.
    I’m getting off this train soon but does anybody know where it’s going?

  4. Claire says:

    Why are there so many homeless in front of the new Publix pan handling ? I did not see that many at the old Publix.

  5. Denise Calderwood says:

    OK Flagler Citizens its true we do have a homeless problem right here in Flagler County! Flagler Social Service Leadership needs to wake up and decide that it is way past time to do something constructive to help out this issue and not to turn back money that was intended to help them- which our county did in 2015. We need to determine what services we actually have here that are accessible and not located in Volusia County because our homeless can’t get there and even they cant figure out the right solution just read the NewsJournal to see that. And Access was happening every month and then all of a sudden it was changed to every other month without a constructive action plan in place, yet more people were being served. However , look on the bright side, we will have a brand new jail to place them all in once it is finished. Or maybe we can actually talk about utilizing the wings at the new Sheriff’s Administration Building or the first old hospital, after all both of these facilities are located adjacent to our only public housing complex in the county so NIMBY shouldn’t be a problem. But of course we first have to talk about the problem before solutions can be found.

  6. sunrayrider says:

    Economics and mental illness, number one cause, and the numbers will grow…
    We have to stand together as a community to care for those, who are not capable of caring for themselves…they could be your sons, and daughters…But for the grace go I…

  7. Susan says:

    What the Tree does is simply to go what God would want. People helping people. The latest events are devastating. To say you support the Tree yet charge them for helping the homeless is shameful! You’re gonna close the bathrooms- fine. You’re gonna kick the homeless off the grounds- fine. But you took it to a new low when you stated you would charge the Tree ‘rent’ for 2 rooms. Charge- seriously?! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Those ladies who ‘grew’ the Tree did so with blood, sweat, and tears… the very same blood, sweat, and tests that Jesus shed when he died for our sins. I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering at the Tree. Last year, on a cold night when the shelter was open overnight, I sat and just talked with a man. We talked and talked. This man truly was a neat guy. His life was once all together. He lost his job and his life fell apart. Seriously, think about it— aren’t all of us just one check away from despair? Well, the next time the shelter opened overnight, he was there again. I said hello and welcomed him by name. He teared up and said “you remembered my name”… I told him of course I did. I will never forget that day. I touched this guy just by remembering his name. Those at the shelter have been more than grateful for a warm meal and a roof over their head. Those volunteering are doing so out of the kindness of their hearts. Changes happen, I get it. But did you have to go to this level of change? You cannot say that you support the tree yet charge them rent.
    To those of you at the Tree- don’t give up, stay in prayer. I’ll pray you find a building to continue what you do. I’ll pray you find the funds to operate a 24/7 shelter. I’m sad for you. I’m mad, aggravated, and disappointed in the fact that there’s a hypocrite among you. I miss Pastor Beth! Nevertheless, Stay the course… You’re all amazing!

  8. Agent X says:

    Here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets in Lubbock, TX, we ask why the First United Methodist Church aka The Body of Christ is turning out the poor! WWJD? Anyone??? Is that part of the “bigger picture?” And when did following Jesus have more to do with “safety” of people on the property than with acceptance of sinners???

    This church needs an apocalyptic vision of her ministry. That is a bigger picture.

    I really hope the church will repent.

  9. confidential says:

    Our growing homeless population is courtesy of our 1%. Took thousands of factories overseas to greedy profit from slave wages and laid off our American workers and thousands lost their homes because no longer could pay their mortgages some that were paid for many years and foreclosures left them in the street. All this BS that people bought homes they could not afford…I know so many they were paying 15, 20 and more years mortgages when the lost their jobs!
    Meanwhile nothing is being done by anyone to bring those jobs back home and the 1% greed and wealth accumulation keeps growing as fast as homelessness does for the one’s at the bottom.
    End up these wars involvement by demanding that the rich middle and far eastern countries fund them not us! Use the trillions wasted in faraway wars to repair our seriously deteriorated infrastructure falling down. That alone will create 15 million USA jobs that will improve our nations financial miseries by generating more income tax so much needed. How we came about to allow our politicians to continuo this relentless waste of our tax payers funds in other venues than serving us all?
    What is the world we leave for our children if we generate homelessness and then shut the only bathroom doors they need to use or the safer grounds to go to sleep at night. Looks to me like taking the habitat and food form black bears and then shoot them because they come close to us desperate looking for food. Where compassion has gone?

  10. Kathryn says:

    I’m really concerned about the downright lack of empathy in some of these comments for people who are seriously down on their luck and in a bad financial spot. Wait until you’re in the same shoes one day, and then let me know if you still want to be “dropped off on the courthouse steps”.

  11. jim says:

    Its a shame when you have a person that sits at the citgo all day buying scratch off tickets at $ 25 a pop, then drives over to this church when they give food away to the needy and loads them up in his brand new mustang . If it were not for people like this maybe they would have more to help the needy and the homeless with !

  12. roy says:

    Jim you hit the nail on the head you got ones that go get free food, they own a home and auto but have spare money to sit and play the lottery everyday. I SEE THEM ALL THE TIME

  13. Anonymous says:

    At Denise Calderwood,

    First we have to figure out how many of our homeless are from here and are not transient. How many are really on hard times versus those for whom it is a way of life. How many were put on a bus in northern states and sent down here one way to get rid of a problem person and how many are brought to our county line and dropped off by neighboring law enforcement agencies? Go to a city where there is assistance and you will see what we’ll get with a shelter. Take a drive through Daytona Beach…the people on those benches aren’t waiting for the bus. Same if you go to Jacksonville or any other bigger city. It’s great to want to help but it would only expand the problem here because if you build it they will come along with an increase in the criminal element. Didn’t two of the homeless here just recently stab each other sending one to the hospital and the other to jail? Let’s look at what’s going on in other places and how they are affected before inviting the issue here.

  14. KB63 says:

    I might be mistaken but as far as I can see the homeless that we have in Bunnell are the same few guys and then once in awhile a new one or two join in. The few that are always there will never be able to be productive and will continue to be homeless, we’ve known them for years. There have been several that were down on their luck for awhile and then got jobs & moved on. The day labor place is right down the street, they go to work. Can someone tell me what & how they have caused any major problems? I’m a little lost as to why there just doesn’t seem to be any good reasoning for this change, and to put it bluntly, it doesn’t seem like a real Christian thing to do.

  15. Susan says:

    Jim, I do have to agree with you. Not much irks me more than seeing the homeless drink and smoke and even buy scratch offs. However, it’s the mom or dad that list their job and are in jeopardy of losing their house, car, or even children that break my heart. I still feel that this so called ‘Pastor’ at FUMC in Bunnell is not a Godly person- in fact, I perceive him as a hypocrite. Let his life take a tragic turn and let’s see who comes to his aide. I’m so disappointed.

  16. unknown resident says:

    I must say many see this as a blessing to our family,satety, and homes in the area. I understand how tough times can effect any of us at any time as many of us have been there as well. But it doesn’t stop by continuing to enable the problem without a facility to train, deal with mental health issues etc. Over the years I have watched the downtown area go from a quaint small town to a place no one can enjoy except the homeless. The sad part is the residents suffer the most. Flagler County offers a lot of resources for those willing to go for it. However I have watched many people come year after year the same faces from northern states only to get out of the cold and live off our community. I have spoken to these people and they brag about it. They hear about us up north so word is out via advertising. Busing in tons from Volusia County when already overcrowded only makes it worse. The residents needing the most help in our county can barely get help needed, Yes I am a Christian and pray that a facility with resources and not in a residential area will be found soon. But we cannot continue to bring people with outstanding warrents, sex predators,people hiding from the law
    and such to hide out here. They will only change when ready. As said before enabling this behavior is harmful to all of us. We do care care but as Jesus said feed a man they keep coming teach a man to fish and they will fish for life therefor finding a better way of life we pray.

  17. scoff the cuff says:

    I’m nearly homeless. And have spent more than just a few nights in the open. I don’t want to have to get the hang of it. Bunnell is a long walk. I don’t have $2 for county transport. Just ‘getting a job’? Credit burned, health down, maybe no permanent home address (Not just one for mailing), and more; you try getting “a job”, the job of our new economy/society where the work of three is done by one with reduced hours. Some of this I did bring on myself, and I don’t want to hear the 1% muck. Where is the hand up? And what does it look like? How many more written and on-line forms of rejection do I have to fill out, OH, Government AND Business, and you of Church with your other agendas?
    Well, enough from me. I might get cynical.

  18. Carla Traister says:

    First United Methodist Church of Bunnell is not only my church of worship, but it is my family in Florida and my network of support. The folks that have continued to attend and support the church these past 8 years have been compassionate, open, and encouraging to the shelter’s homeless ministry. It is also part of the ministry of FUMC. We have fought together to bring help and comfort to the homeless. There has always been a fuzzy line between the ministry of the church and the ministry of The Sheltering Tree. The church took a huge leap of faith when it started the ministry that developed into the Sheltering Tree. We knew when it started that it would be an uphill battle, messy and not very popular with some of the community and even some of the members. But there was no doubt in our hearts that this was what we were led to do. FCFAC (Flagler County Family Assistance Center) dba The Sheltering Tree became a separate 501c3 after the first season so that it can receive grants. It rents the Fellowship Hall each night that the shelter is open and the recent request to pay rent for the two additional storage rooms is very reasonable especially considering that we have used them 365 days a year for going on 8 years. The Sheltering Tree has always been and always will be extremely grateful to have had the relationship of sharing this mutual mission, and hope that it continues even after the Shelter finds a suitable alternative location that will benefit the homeless, the Shelter and the church.
    My church, FUMC, is like most others in this country; it continues to struggle in response to the slow-to-recover economy. We also said tearful good-byes to Pastor Gardner and her family as they continued on in their new direction. We welcome our new pastor Terry Wines who has a heart for the homeless and the skills needed to lead us it where we need to go as a church. The recent changes in policy were prayerfully thought out by both the Trustees of the church and Terry, knowing again that a leap of faith has been taken and not everyone will be happy. It will require work, willingness and assurance that God knows what He is doing in all of this to bring the Sheltering Tree’s and the church’s missions to fruition.
    Does everyone in the church and FCFAC agree with the Trustee’s and the Pastor’s decisions? No. Do we understand why some of these changes had to be done? As a whole, yes. These were tough decisions. The church’s policies must insure that the church will be here a year, 10 years, and hopefully, one hundred years from now. The Shelter would never have started nor continued without the generosity, patience, support and willingness to put up with the difficulties that serving homeless brings. The trustees of FUMC, the Pastor and The Sheltering Tree are all on the same team! We need support, not criticism.
    If this were easy, purely rewarding and economically beneficial, then more than one tiny church in this county of over 100 churches would be offering their facilities as a homeless shelter. Who else will step up and say, “bring them here”?
    In the 8 years that the church and Shelter has shouldered the daily responsibilities of providing a bathrooms, towels, storage benches, toiletries, etc., lack of material support from the county has been obviously absent. Committees have been formed; meeting upon meeting has taken place, but there is no commitment, or even a conversation, about funding or investing any energy by the government toward solving a growing homeless problem.
    What is needed? A location in a permitted zone that can provide showers, laundry facilities, bathrooms, a computer, and some emergency housing. And some true, material support.

    P.S. I have heard that being homeless is such an easy way to go through life: no work, no responsibility, living off of hand-outs, no showering, no toilets, no car, no clean clothing, no dentist, no respect, not having to cook, no place to sit and talk with friends, no friends except other homeless, no place to legally sleep, no jobs if you are not clean and can’t get to work on time because you are living in the woods, bug bit, wet feet, moldy clothing, eating cold canned food with a plastic fork, judged and shunned by society. Yes, it is easy to see why anyone in their right mind chooses to be homeless. It’s just not as simple as “get a job”.

  19. Agent X says:

    Carla,

    Thank you for that thoughtful response to all the responses. I am touched by the phrase “my church” that you used more than once. I am thinking you really feel the scrutiny there about right now. I pray you and the church bear up with it.

    I commend you for all the sacrifice and work your church put into that ministry for the last 8 years! You did well. And I thank you for every little bit of it. Your reward will be great in heaven for it.

    I am particularly keen to note that you did that work alone. No county help. Few, if any, agencies to help. And so I am even more particularly alarmed that the rest of the Body of Christ there has not stepped up to help. Shame on them.

    I speak as a street prophet serving Jesus. This is the only angle of the story there that I care about. I do not live there. I do not know all the ins and outs of your particular community. I don’t even care about what the government does or does not do. I just speak as one from the church about the church to the church. There is a lot of clatter on all the political and economic fronts of this story. But I am not addressing them at all.

    My aim here is to honor Jesus. What honors Jesus? Closing down the ministry? Kicking out the homeless? Even IF a 501c3 or some government office stepped up and took over, would that honor Jesus?

    Look, our society is deeply broken. My guess is that it is beyond repair, but I hate to be a prophet of doom (they all are, it seems). But FUMC is the very Body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit of God to rise from the dead. If it is not, then go home now. If it is, then LIVE LIKE IT! Take courage and take the stand God called you to in the first place.

    You listed off an awful lot of dynamics regarding economy and politics and what people think etc… But you never mentioned if the church is honoring Jesus by kicking out the homeless. You never called on the Holy Spirit. And on the great day of Judgment, that is the only stuff that will matter. In the meantime, if you were stuck out in the cold tonight, I bet someone there at the church would take you in. But if they didn’t, there would be no possible explanation for why not. That is the nitty gritty. Its not the tuff decisions. Its being faithful to the right ones.

    by the way, your PS at the end is very heart felt AND insightful. Those are some true words that should shut up a lot of stonehearted critics. And sufficiently makes a case that you really don’t have to listen to them anymore.

    I will pray for you, your church, and the homeless there tonight. Prayers from Texas!

  20. sunrayrider says:

    unknown resident in your response to:
    A. Over the years I have watched the downtown area go from a quaint small town to a place no one can enjoy except the homeless.
    It is still a quaint little town, and the homeless we have here has not changed it one bit.

    B. Busing in tons from Volusia County when already overcrowded only makes it worse
    Those brought in from HUM overflow are transported back immediately after breakfast…
    they are accounted for off the bus, and accounted for back on.

    C. As said before enabling this behavior is harmful to all of us.
    Since inception in 2008, not one homeless person here has hurt no one but themselves.

    D. We do care care but as Jesus said feed a man they keep coming teach a man to fish and they will fish for life therefor finding a better way of life we pray.

    Jesus said to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, these things you do as me…

    the Chinese axiom “Give a man a fish, and you have fed
    him once. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

    On the first night of 40,
    join in and be fed by doing what he asks us to do…
    In the blink of an eye we all could be there…

  21. confidential says:

    Thank you Carla Traister for your compassion that we should all have as well, for our homeless fellow Americans.
    Copy your compassionate post above to the White House here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments. Maybe they can help as they should.
    I did copy the President in 2014 requesting help for the homeless shelter in Daytona Beach that was about to be shut down. Anonymous donor kept it open.
    http://www.wesh.com/news/anonymous-donor-gives-80k-to-shelter/27095758
    We just need funds to buy a piece of land off Rte 1 where bathrooms, showers, overnight camping sites and a main gathering hall under roof protected from the weather with computer hook ups and volunteers like you assist and can provide services to try and help them search for and hopefully get jobs.
    What about a Go Fund Me fund raising were we compassionate citizens can donate towards such a plan?
    Is this what we allow our needy to go thru, when our taxes are not used in what are intended for?:http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/cgi-bin/id/article.cgi?article=19
    http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/cgi-bin/id/opensearch.cgi?city=palm+coast+fl&state=
    How our local government can reject and ignore in this way our fellow Americans in financial distress?

  22. groot says:

    Not to be insensitive but, from the looks of it, I thought the Belle Terre Publix parking lot was the de facto homeless shelter in the area.

  23. Concerned says:

    Wow, I am really surprised at some of these comments. Apparently, many of the readers have not been low, down trodden, at the mercy of others to help them. It has always been my observation through the scriptures, even just human morals and dignity that this is what we are suppose to do is HELP EACH OTHER! The Sheltering Tree is not an enabling group of volunteers. Their ultimate goal is to have everyone off the street. We do not know each of these folks situations. Hopefully none of us will ever be in their place. Remember, most families live pay check to pay check. That’s just one to two months from HOMELESSNESS!!!

  24. Anonymous says:

    not all of the surrounding residents believe in,wanna hear about or worship god…they simply want the community restored to a safer neighborhood where a local church is not providing bums a place to rest daily..

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