There was the Sheriff’s Operations Center. There was Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing. There was the Plantation Bay utility. There was Craig Coffey, the former county administrator whose imprint was on the mishandling of all three shambles.
Now, with Coffey gone, there’s a new shamble as the county gave notice to exile the homeless off a makeshift camp on county land behind the county’s public library off Palm Coast Parkway. Not just exile them, but bus them–those willing, anyway–to an extremely isolated primitive county campsite at the far west end of Flagler. The new shamble risked spoiling up the days-old administration of Interim Administrator Jerry Cameron.
A county commissioner and a Palm Coast city commissioner were reacting unhappily about the plan, city officials were displeased with the way the county was making it seem as if the city was forcing the issue, the plan was drawing far more derision and disbelief than support from the community, not least because the county had not communicated its plan before implementing it, and it was getting lousy reactions from the homeless themselves, as an Observer article illustrated earlier this week. By this morning, residents in West Flagler were posting on Facebook that they were ready to take to the streets, protest and block roads to prevent the homeless from reaching the camp, called Russell Landing.
At 4 p.m. today, Cameron, in an interview with FlaglerLive, said the Russell Landing idea was scrapped. So was any plan to exile the homeless. Instead, they would be moved to a different section of the 18-acre site behind the public library while county crews cleaned up the garbage and the brush, then allowed to return there, with one new, crucial amenity: garbage bins and garbage service, which did not exist before, essentially forcing the homeless to pile up their trash.
“They are going to be happier this way,” Cameron said. “It’s a much better resolution for everybody.”
Cameron did his best to portray the entire progression of events this week as well planned: he credited his staff again and again for pulling off a difficult issue–“Heidi has done a fantastic job of managing this issue all the way through,” he said of Heidi Petito, the county’s facilities manager. And he placed some of the blame on media for “interjecting” themselves in the process before it was thought through, even though media only started reporting the issue when the county put up its “notice to vacate” at the homeless, following it up with a news release detailing how and why the homeless would be taken to Russell Landing.
“That was always during the planning process, we had to put the notices out according to our legal department, so we put them out while the planning process was still going on,” Cameron said.
He was saving face for the county and its staff after what was degrading into a significant embarrassment. Nevertheless, Cameron acted swiftly to halt the bleeding–and to take responsibility for the Russell Landing choice, saying he had picked it out from several other options as the most workable. He had done so, he said, during a round-table “brainstorming,” in the presence of sheriff’s staff, and staff from the county’s legal department, general services, social services and himself. Places like Princess Place Preserve and the county fairgrounds had been among the options, but he said he eliminated them because they have “current other uses,” though it’s more likely that other members of his staff howled at the suggestion that the homeless would be in areas where tourists, a commodity in Flagler as sacred as India’s cows, could actually see them.
It was the second time in a week that he was falling on a sword to protect his staff (he did so last week after the cancellation of a meeting that was to address Bing’s Landing issues.)
One crisis was averted. Others were not: if anything, the controversy over exiling the homeless heightened attention on what City Council member Jack Howell describes as a “crisis” near the library, and what others have described as a chronic homeless issue all local governments have refused to tackle beyond words and makeshift solutions.
The handling–or mishandling–of the camp at the library illustrates the improvisational approach, and the reaction to it shows to what extent turf and the assignment of responsibilities (if not blame) remains a difficult obstacle in the way of a more humane and lasting solution.
Last Saturday (March 2), Flagler County government officials gave the homeless in the makeshift camp behind the library the now-infamous “notice to vacate.”
The red-lettered notice was posted at 15 locations at and around the site, including at various spots in the library, which is frequently used by the homeless for its bathrooms, its water, its protection against the weather, its comforts and its resources, including WiFi and the internet. The homeless were given until next Friday, March 8, to be out, and offered as an alternative transport to Russell Landing. (See a profile of Russell Landing here.)
The county in a news release issued Tuesday said it was moving the homeless out to comply “with the notice served by the City of Palm Coast Code Enforcement to clear the property of litter, debris, vegetation, and potentially life-threatening hazards.”
“We are under a mandate from the city of Palm Coast to clean that area up, and we need to underbrush it, so it’s going to take us a week, maybe two.”
Palm Coast officials were surprised by the county’s release, which conflated the city’s notice with the ejection of the homeless as if the two originated from the same source. They did not. Nor did Palm Coast exactly mandate a buzz-cut approach on the 18-acre property.
On Feb. 19, Barbara Grossman, the city’s code enforcement manager, wote her counterpart at the county, Eddy Rodriguez, that she had gotten a complaint from a homeowner on 31 Braddock Lane, across the canal from the county acreage, who allowed code enforcement inspectors to use his property. They caught sight of the debris across the canal and took a very grainy picture of it, which Grossman sent Rodriguez.
“As you can see in the attached photo there is evidence of accumulations, litter and debris,” she wrote him. “The City is requesting that the violation be corrected within 30 days from the date of this email. If not corrected a Notice of Violation will be issued and the case will be scheduled for the next available Code Board Hearing.”
Interim City Manager Beau Falgout described Grossman’s mail as a “courtesy” notice that gave the county plenty of time to address the garbage issue, even beyond the 30-day timeframe. “There was never a point where we formally put a sticker on their door, the point was to try to work with them,” Falgout said in a brief interview Tuesday evening. Earlier at the Palm Coast City Council meeting, Falgout said the city was not approaching the county about the homeless: the city has “no regulations related to homelessness.” The city has no authority to tell the county to ship out the homeless or to regulate them, just as the county has no legal authority to forbid the homeless from using public land when it can’t provide a more viable alternative. (The city can, however, forbid camping in its city parks, and does so.)
Nor, it appeared at the time, had anyone suggested to simply shift the homeless around on the 18-acre property to enable the county’s work to proceed, lending credence to what County Commissioner Joe Mullins later said: the county was attempting to put the homeless “out of sight, out of mind.” by sending them to disparate ends of the county, or to other counties, it was hoping they would eventually disappear, Mullins said.
Shipping homeless around would not have been unique to Flagler: it’s a common tactic adopted by innumerable cities around the nation, some of whom actually fly and bus the homeless very long distance, including to other territories and nations, with one-way tickets, as the Guardian revealed in an investigative report 15 months ago. “Cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades,” the paper reported as part of an analysis of 34,240 such journeys involving 21,400 homeless people. “In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the country and costing the public millions of dollars.”
He had not liked the idea of Russell Landing for other reasons as well: he learned of it from the press, and said he was “a little shocked that it happened before we knew,” making it seem as if little had changed in the administration: he wanted more transparency.
The homeless camp behind the library has had a population of between two and three dozen, and recent visits to the camp by City Council member Jack Howell and County Commission Chairman Don O’Brien have increased urgency to address the issue. Howell said he was in conversations with O’Brien to get a working group together but until Tuesday evening did not have the authority to speak on behalf of the city.
O’Brien appeared before the council Tuesday evening. He was supportive of the county administration’s plan, which at the time was still all about exile. “I think we have a handle on what’s happening on the property behind the library, that will go a long way to answering some of the concerns the citizens have,” O’Brien told the council.
“We will have more to come with that,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said. “This is the first I’m hearing of relocation and cleaning up of the property, hopefully that’s a step in approaching the safety and health of the issue.”
The council soon gave Howell authority to speak for the city on homeless issues–after he had something of a tamper tantrum directed at Mayor Milissa Holland, who preferred to see what the county would do before scheduling a city workshop on the issue. But she shifted tracks halfway through the discussion, agreeing to Howell as a point person. “We’re recognizing him as our voice and he will bring and update us on the progress being made,” Holland said, “and thank you for taking the lead.”
Howell had seesawed over Russell Landing, declaring himself opposed at first, then seeing it as a workable, temporary solution if there was going to be busing available. But when he saw images of the camp in a FlaglerLive story published earlier today, he said it wasn’t what he had in mind. “We need to and I think we can do better.”
But do what? The question has been posed year after year, without an answer–and with no money in sight, especially from cash-strapped Flagler County, to put toward the issue.
Which makes today’s resolution at the library what could yet again be a defacto long-term solution.
The homeless themselves were certainly indicating a sense of ownership in what’s been their home for years. Not long after this story initially published, Cameron contacted FlaglerLive with “an interesting human story on this,” in his words. The homeless, he said, “have volunteered to help with the clean-up, so our folks are going to go out and issue them some protective equipment and so forth, so they’re actually going to work to be a part of the solution.”