The Flagler County Commission, the Palm Coast City Council, the school district, the sheriff’s office, the countywide affordable housing and homelessness task force and the countywide Public Safety Coordinating Council and a half dozen churches in Flagler Beach, Palm Coast and Bunnell are all in one way or another either directly helping or looking for ways to help the county’s homeless.
Bunnell city government since City Manager Alvin Jackson’s arrival late last year has been doing the opposite. Last fall the city council adopted the county’s only anti-panhandling ordinance, a harsh measure tailored after St. Augustine’s and Daytona Beach’s that, in essence, gives police implicit authority to harass and chase out panhandlers from any commercial or school zone any time of day or night.
Last week, the city’s zoning board, operating with a bare quorum of three of its five members –Jerry Jones, Howard Kane and Carl Lilavois–voted to end Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church’s hosting of the cold-weather shelter for the homeless, an operation run by the non-profit Sheltering Tree for the past 11 years. (The Sheltering Tree is also known as the Family Assistance Center.) The vote followed an abrasive presentation about its operation by Rodney Lucas, the city’s new community and economic development director, who on several occasions, and out of keeping with protocol at such hearings, aggressively questioned shelter volunteers who were merely addressing the board.
“Shocker. Shocker. Why?” said Sarah Ulis, a member of the board of the Sheltering Tree. “Is this some kind of a movement against the homeless? And why?” She described the zoning board meeting as a “lynching.”
The Sheltering Tree board held an emergency meeting Monday. It intends to appeal the decision to the city commission.
The church’s May 7 application for a special exception to the zoning code sought to accomplish several things unrelated to the shelter, including upgrading restrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, supply shower and laundry facilities for hurricane relief teams dispatched to the area after natural disasters, upgrade facilities for those who use the church’s Fellowship Hall for church events, special events, the church’s Care Cupboard food pantry–an integral part of the church’s ministry for the poor for the past 15 years–and its Soul Cafe weekly dinner for the poor, operating for 19 years. The application also sought additional storage space. The food pantry fed 18,000 families last year. The Soul Cafe provides 50 to 60 meals weekly, all accomplished with volunteers and donations from local restaurants. Six teams stayed at the church while providing relief for two recent hurricanes, including Irma.
The shower and laundry facilities would have also been available for disaster-relief teams and for those who use the cold-weather shelter on those rare nights each year when the overnight temperature falls below 40 degrees. The Sheltering Tree’s 150 trained volunteers work in teams, including some government officials (but not Bunnell’s) turn the Fellowship Hall into an overnight shelter for the homeless. It did so 19 times last year, with individuals served from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following day. The shelter hosted an average of 15 individuals on those nights.
The shelter partners with the sheriff’s Stride program-designed to help jail inmates reintegrate the community successfully–the Flagler County Free Clinic, the Salvation Army, AdventHealth Palm Coast and numerous other local agencies. It has operated successfully for most of its existence, though in 2010-11 it fought hard to stay on after facing a bout of resistance from some members of the community. When it’s in operation, every government agency of note, including Emergency Services, law enforcement, local media and many others are notified. It’s never been a secret. It’s never been disallowed. “So I don’t know what’s changed,” Sue Bickings, who chairs the Sheltering Tree Board, said.
The zoning board took two votes on the matter. The first vote approved some code-compliant construction, including two showers, but only for use by disaster-relief teams, and only by a teams made up of a maximum of six people: that is, the maximum number of people permitted in a residential zone home, since the church zoned residential.
“R-1 allows only six people to stay overnight,” Lucas told the zoning board members. He did not clarify that the special exception the church was asking for would exempt it from that limit of six people, even though the board could easily have approved that exception.
The board in effect did not approve the submitted application for an exception to the zoning code, but its own edict that the church may build a maximum of two showers and be in compliance with all codes before operating as a location for a disaster-relief team. The limit of six people would make it difficult for the church to be such a location. The board in large respect thus nullified the purpose of the church’s request.
It then turned to the request for an exception (or exemption) enabling the use of Fellowship Hall as a cold-weather shelter. That was rejected outright.
The church is in a residential neighborhood. But the church, a block away from U.S. 1 on one side and Moody Boulevard on the other, is within a block of the Bank of America, Terranova, the restaurant, and a flooring shop, among many other businesses. The area, Lucas said, “is intended to encourage healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.”
Bickings later told the board of the church’s long history, when “it was not built as a house: people don’t live there. It’s a church, and churches in America, some of them, try to help people. Because that’s what Jesus would like us to do. So this church for 11 years, for 11 years, has run a cold-weather shelter pretty well.”
“The city has no problem with it doing its food and clothing pantries, these are normal church activities,” Lucas said. He said it’s not compatible with the zoning. He said the city received “many calls” but just one letter of opposition. He cited, without evidence, a concern about the church “housing sex offenders.” He said the fire inspector failed the church “several times” over its fire protection system, which is antiquated in certain rooms.
First United Methodist Church Rev. Terry Wines stressed the “temporary” nature of the facilities for which the exception was sought. He conceded that the church had some work to do to be in compliance, and is working with Alarmpro to fix its systems, finances permitting. “When we were informed that we were in violation, we ceased,” he said.
The zoning board could easily ratify by special exemption what the city had ratified by practice for 11 years.
It did not do so.
It was clear from the start of the discussion that the city intended to shut down the shelter by any pretext necessary. “We went back in the records and there was never city commission approval to use this property as such,” Lucas said. Lucas’s claim is curious since the city itself organized a community meeting in February 2011 to hear concerns about the cold-weather shelter and attempt to reach a consensus on its continued operation–which it did, with the city administration’s blessing. “It’s too important an issue for us to let emotions get in the way,” then-City Manager Armando Martinez said at the time. Two years later the city hosted a forum on the issue, when Martinez described it as “Bunnell taking a lead role in an issue that affects the entire county.” There never was an attempt by the commission to raise any issues of legalities or irregularities by the shelter, though the city had ample opportunities to do so.
“We were also under the understanding that there had been a special exemption, but it had been given under the name of the previous pastor,” Wines said at Friday’s meeting. Beth Gardner, the previous pastor, had successfully weathered attempts to shut down the shelter, and did so with the city’s help–without a special exception–before she was transferred to a church in Lakeland. Still, Wines said he was aiming to do what was necessary to attain whatever was necessary under his name and the church board’s name to ensure compliance.
Lucas, who spoke with an accusatory, at times boorish tone unusual for administrators–and sharply at variance with the way the City Council handles its meetings and the public before it–at one point grilled Wines as if Lucas were a prosecutor and Wines a defendant. The questioning was gratuitous: Wines was before the board precisely to secure the special exception necessary–not to claim that he had one already. Still, Lucas questioned: “Do you have anything in writing that says the city has you as approved zoning to date operating as a temporary overnight residential use facility?”
“To the best of my knowledge, no,” Wines said. “And that is why we’re here tonight.”
Lucas pressed on, as if he had not heard Wines, but by then it was clear that Lucas was putting on a show, battering Wines for effect to prime an audience ready to lob its own stones and ease the zoning board’s way to a No vote: “Do you understand that R-1 zoning doesn’t allow this type of use?”
“I understand, yes,” Wines said. (Lucas not once questioned individuals who spoke against the shelter. Lucas was Jackson’s first major hire. Jackson had beaten him out for city manager.)
Lilavois, sitting in for Thea Mathen as the zoning board’s chairman–Mathen was at an international Rotary conference (“wish I had been able to attend,” she said in a text)–then opened the floor to public comment.
Mike Kuypers was among the volunteers who helped during two hurricanes. He was among the rare few who spoke in support of the church’s mission. He described to the board the “unobtrusive” work the hurricane volunteers perform for a week or so, urging approval of the exception. “Other churches have relief crews that come and go as well, it’s not unusual for a church to house relief workers through their system to do volunteer work in their community.”
Other volunteers spoke in favor of the application, including the contractor working on the project, a church trustee. “We are the only cold-weather shelter for the county of Flagler, these people have nowhere else to go,” Charles Bergen, the contractor who submitted the application to the city and designed the planned construction, said. He stressed that lawbreakers such as sex offenders–the specter almost reflexively brandished by opponents of the shelter to buttress their case–are trespassed from the property. “I don’t see how the city of Bunnell can deny me a permit to build ADA-compliant facilities for our bathrooms, OK?” The ADA is the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But many others were opposed to the Sheltering Tree’s work.
Lynne Lafferty, a long-time resident and owner of a Montessori school near the Methodist church, among other properties she owns, said she’s had ample opportunity to observe who uses the church, and claimed transients there have included a “convicted murderer” and three child sex offenders who use the church as their address, “a man who assaulted five children at a nearby park,” drug dealers and prostitutes, and loitering that results in feces and trash on her property and fear among neighbors to sit on their own porches. “There’s one neighbor, she’s scared to feed her cat. She’ll come out later,” Lafferty said.
So it went, with speaker after speaker describing drinkers, loiterers-one woman spoke contemptuously of the homeless doing all this “while they sit and play on their iphone”–and other similar issues, often saying they had nothing against volunteer emergency workers. “But as far as the homeless, we’re done with them. We’ve had enough of them. It’s ridiculous.” A man who walks his dog “religiously” by the church seven days a week said the church “is not a KOA campground,” and said “it’s not about homelessness. It’s about drug addiction,” “prostitution” and screamers of obscenities. His wife, he said, is scared of walking the dog (a pit bull) by the church.
Later, Roberta Nelson, a seven-year resident of East Lambert Street, described the homeless as “shiftless” liars with cell phones who do drugs and have sex and “do it on the street in front of kids,” and spoke of worse. “I had one woman zipping up her pants and she’s going, ‘Can you believe he only offered me 10 bucks for a blow job?’ I’m like, what’s the matter, you’re upset at the blow job or you’re upset about the price?” It’s not clear why a woman soliciting or recovering from oral sex would be zipping up her pants, suggesting the story was likelier apocryphal than not.
Joe Mullins, the county commissioner and chairman of the Public Safety Coordinating Council who owns a homesteaded property down the street from the church and who’s sought a lead role in addressing homeless issues countywide–he chairs the public safety coordinating council–also addressed the zoning panel. “As far as the cold-weather shelter, I don’t think there’s an individual in this room that doesn’t want to help these individuals or provide a service during desperate times,” Mullins said. (He was speaking immediately after the woman who said “we’ve had enough of them”).
“I think the fear here is that being kept in that range,” Mullins continued. “And there’s a lot of commotion right now as you guys know and as I know through the county with the homeless situation. This isn’t an easy problem that we’re going to be able to solve. We’re working it as a–and I’m going to speak on it as a commissioner as well: we’re working on it on a county level to get a procedure in place. On of the big problems we have in this county is there’s no procedure to address this situation. So we’ve been direly working on it at the Public Safety Coordinating Council, the new manager is working on it, we visited with the Salvation Army to get a solution. I don’t want to see us relocate these individuals from one area of the county to the other. The solution to this is to get this procedure in place and to address this like most counties are doing across the country.”
(In fact, there has been no discussion at the County Commission to develop the sort of policies Mullins is discussing, and the public safety council has shown interest in addressing the situation, but has resisted actual ordinances that would look to law enforcement as a homeless police in any way. And most counties and local governments are hesitant to adopt homeless-restricting regulations for fear of litigation.) Mullins said what the county as a whole is doing now is not working, but, addressing Bunnell’s issue, he said “we don’t need to be reacting” but finding a broader solution.
Since the church’s requests before the board were split in two, the hearing turned into a double-barreled onslaught against the church, with two public-comment periods, each echoing the other. After the vote allowing for the use of the facility by a small disaster-relief team, the board asked for comment on the shelter issue alone, with Lucas reiterating much of what he’d said before, with a bit of extra history and the odd exaggeration: he claimed at one point that there was inadequate parking for the church, though it’s never been an issue for a congregation that can draw upwards of 100 people for services, while the homeless tend not to have vehicles of their own. Lucas’s reference to parking, however, was in keeping with his all-but-kitchen-sink attack on the shelter.
Lucas offered what he called a “three-month grace period” to the shelter, giving it time to move elsewhere–a serrated olive branch given that the average night temperatures over the next three months will be in the 70s, and the shelter is not expected to operate until after well after Thanksgiving.
Bickings, the Sheltering Tree Board chair, spoke during that second segment.
“Homelessness in this country, it’s everywhere,” Bickings said. “You’ve watched what Palm Coast did, what the library did, what the county’s done. Nobody wants to touch homelessness. They can’t fix it, because people are homeless, they either choose it or they end up that way through terrible circumstances. So homelessness exists an people live in communities. The Bunnell homeless people don’t live in Palm Coast and the Palm Coast homeless people don’t live in Bunnell. They live in the place where they are. They’re not going to go away. If the cold-weather shelter goes away, homeless people will still walk down the street in Bunnell. They’ll be in the woods.” She spoke of the various successes, naming names, of homeless people who have successfully made their way out of homelessness or getting help in other ways, “an no one is living on the property of the church.” She said “it’s better than we’ve ever been,” compared to previous issues. She spoke of the 150 volunteers who work for the shelter. She spoke of the church and its intentions. She spoke wryly of the zoning designation, as if it were the only defining commandment at work.
Lucas grilled Bickings, too, asking her if she had a business tax receipt to “do business at that location.”
“We don’t do business,” she replied, a touch of disbelief in her voice, “we’re a cold-weather shelter. That’s not business–”
Lucas persisted, cutting her off, his tone that of a cop asking for a driver’s papers: “Do you operate from 205 North Pine Street?”
“Yes,” Bickings said after a pause, her emphasis on the “s” speaking her displeasure with Lucas’s manner. He did not stop, lecturing her about the organization’s non-profit status.
But the vote was a foregone conclusion.