The homeless can seem a world apart from those who have a roof over their head. But the same could be said on Tuesday about members of a task force exploring ways to address Palm Coast and Flagler County’s homelessness issue, and residents demanding that the city do something about the problem.
The task force met for two and a half hours Tuesday afternoon, its meeting finally ending half an hour before the council meeting began. The gap between the two worlds became more surreal when one of the task force’s members, who is a council member–Jack Howell–and who attended both meetings, attacked members of task force without reserve: “I was not overly impressed with what I saw today at this meeting, and I’m going to take charge, and it needs to be done my way because they’re spinning it around and they’re not doing what has to be done.”
Howell had not actually attended the whole task force meeting, and what portions of the meeting he had attended was largely as part of one of two break-out group, so he never heard what the other group concluded–nor even his own, as his group agreed to some goals after he’d left. Neither groups’ accomplishments were close to providing a solution to the problem, but all task force members, including Howell at both meetings, agreed on one thing. In Howells’s own words, “This is not a snap-your-finger, they’re all gone scenario.”
So Howell, whom the Palm Coast City Council appointed as a liaison to the county task force and who could in that role have bridged some of the gap between expectations and reality, ended up feeding into false expectations as much as he made promises that he would get something done, without saying what: he had himself made no proposal at the task force meeting, other than to caution against a public “broad-brushing” the problem and asking media to educate residents about the problem.
Nor did he make any proposals, temper inaccuracies or ease concerns after several people spoke to the council at the beginning of its meeting.
Four people spoke to the council of their concerns about the homeless near the library. “We just want to know what’s going to be done about it,” one resident asked. “I don’t feel safe anymore,” a B-Section resident who bought her first home there a few years ago, but who’s lived in the city 25 years and previously always felt safe walking to the store.
“For years it wasn’t a problem with the home-deprived, I guess you could call them,” she continued, “but I feel like there’s been a few bad apples that have gotten mixed in with the group, and there’s been thefts and robberies, some of them are inconclusive as to who is to fault for that, but we all have our little inkling of what it is.” She said she doesn’t feel safe in her own home.
A third resident put it more graphically, if inaccurately, as she spoke of homelessness as “an epidemic” and claimed the homeless are “smoking, drinking, doing drugs, stealing, threatening people, defecating on our city, urinating in the library–the list goes on.” (The statement is strictly accurate, but perhaps with one exception could be attributed in much larger proportions to non-homeless people.) She questioned the city’s concern. “Do you think it’s impacting our property values?” she asked. “What is going to be done to preserve what thousands of taxpayers love and call home?”
In fact, property values are rising for properties immediately north of the library and county acreage where the homeless camp spread out, and from where those properties have somewhat of a wooded view of the homeless camp: the property value at 19 Braddock Lane rose 4 percent this year, according to the Flagler County Property Appraiser’s current estimate. At 21 and 25 Braddock Lane: Up 4.5 percent, at 31 Braddock, up 10 percent. The property at 27 Braddock saw its value drop 6 percent, but that appears to be a readjustment from an 8 percent spike last year, leaving the property still with a net gain since 2017. There are no properties to the west: it’s a city utility plant.
Only the fourth resident to address the council on the issue spoke of the homeless with some perspective: “They’re not all criminals, they don’t all make a mess, they are human beings, some are better people or better citizens than others, but they are citizens nonetheless., they need our help, we have to do what we can, just as we would do for any other citizen.” He said the community needs to deal with the homeless and their rights “as humanely as we can, without demonizing people who are far less fortunate than we are.”
Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said the city can’t itself go into the library property, since it’s county land (though the county spent the second half of March cleaning up the grounds, and according to county officials, reducing the homeless population there possibly by half.) “You can;t take one issue and move it to another part of the county and think that’s acceptable,” Holland said. “This needs to be addressed on a countywide level where there isn’t jurisdictional boundaries that are associated with it, but actually finding solutions that would make sense to address the issue comprehensively. And that’s what we’re doing.”
She said the county’s Public Safety Coordinating Council can move the issue to a more concrete place (though in fact the council is deferring to the homeless task force to produce recommendations). “It is why we actually suggested appointing someone from our council that could advance this discussion from our perspective,” she said of Howell.
That’s when Howell spoke of his attendance at the task force meeting, promising to take charge–and not just there. He spoke of concerns that private property owners are letting homeless people trespass. “We have to get a hold of the property owner and we have to see if they will put a no-trespass sign on their property,” he said, “which the sheriff’s department has had trouble trying to get the enactment from the owner. I have ways. We’re going to get that done.” He did not say what those “ways” are, though his ominous threat elicited murmurs from the audience. He then returned to the task force: “I’ve established that I want this task force coalition to come up with, and I’ll probably be bringing most of them, goals, to have goals, and then I’m going to assign tasks. I already assigned myself to helping write grants.”
Had Howell stayed at the task force meeting or gotten briefed by Carrie Baird, the executive director of FlaglerCares who runs it (FlaglerCares is a coalition of healthcare, social service and government agencies focused on health and affordable housing matters), he’d have heard more about goals that were agreed upon.
The task force broke out in two groups, one focused on homelessness, the other on affordable housing (or “attainable housing,” as Baird prefers to call it), because its members believe one problem can’t be addressed without addressing the other. The homelessness group resolved to start monthly outreach events at the Flagler County Public Library that would draw from numerous social service and government agencies that currently provide services to the poor or the homeless, but aren’t always known or accessible. The monthly events would be an extension of what the county already does quarterly at the fairgrounds–Access Flagler–but would be more targeted to the homeless. Holly Albanese, the library director, said the library would be a natural place for it because of the nearby camp and the focus it’s brought to homeless matters.
“The public needs to see something happening,” Albanese said. It won’t pluck the homeless away from the grounds, but it can accelerate the sort of connections with service agencies that over time, led to those homeless individuals who do want help to be placed in homes or care facilities. Albanese is also looking to hold a town hall on homelessness.
On the affordable housing side, the goals have more to do with long-term strategies than immediate tactics: community education that breaks down resistance to apartment complexes and shows that there’s no such thing as a linkage between apartment buildings and higher crime rates; increasing connections between non-profits and landlords, giving landlords an extra level of comfort when renting to lower-income residents: if leases go awry, the non-profit is the landlord’s buffer, holding the landlord harmless; identifying land that can be converted to affordable housing, subsidized by grants, and encouraging local governments to be more developer friendly to attract affordable housing projects.
Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler Health Department, also convinced the group to prepare what he called a white paper on housing and homeless issues in Flagler so that misconceptions (presumably like those spoken at the council meeting Tuesday evening) are more effectively addressed, and so that local advocates who will be campaigning for more affordable housing and a resolution to the homeless issue can all speak from the same script.
One of the goals the task force discussed echoed some of that was discussed at the Public Safety Coordinating Council last month: coordination between agencies that could determine how best to address an individual’s needs, a goal that could in part be met through the monthly library events, though county officials also provide some of that coordination already.
At that Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting, Commissioner Joe Mullins made a push for ordinances that give law enforcement a stronger tool to tackle homelessness, and finding agencies or places where the homeless could be relocated. Neither of those goals were discussed at the task force: there’s little appetite for harsher ordinances on local government boards at the moment, and Sheriff Rick Staly is uninterested in turning the jail into a homeless shelter. And county and social service agencies stress that finding a place for a homeless individual is never as simple as providing it: the individual must be coaxed and convinced that that’s what he or she wants to do. Sometimes it works. Often, it doesn’t.