The Bunnell City Commission got a preview of the two sharply divided sides that will appear before it again soon in defense of and in opposition to the preservation of the cold-weather shelter for the homeless at First United Methodist Church on Pine Street.
The city’s zoning board in a 3-0 vote in late May voted to forbid the shelter from continuing its operations there, potentially ending an 11-year service by the only volunteer organization providing overnight shelter to the homeless on cold nights. The shelter operated a mere 19 nights last winter. It has drawn bitter opposition from some Bunnell residents and business owners on and off over the years, but has been sustained by some 150 volunteers from across the county.
The zoning board’s decision shocked the Sheltering Tree’;s leadership, though the decision also brought to light various bureaucratic, physical and safety deficiencies in the shelter’s operations, including the absence of a formal permit allowing the shelter to operate and the absence of fire-suppressing sprinklers at Fellowship Hall, where the homeless are housed on cold nights (and where they have weekly free meals on Wednesdays). The church said it is planning to remedy those issues.
The zoning board’s vote was prompted by the Sheltering Tree’s and the church’s applications for zoning exceptions that would formally permit emergency relief and homeless operations at the church. Shelter advocates endured brutal and at times rude cross-examination–though they did not have to be so questioned–by the city’s development director, Rodney Lucas, who never questioned opponents of the shelter. The city commission on Monday did not address Lucas’s conduct, nor the issue itself, essentially punting to the more formal hearing.
“If there is a formal protest or–not a protest, that’s the wrong word–appeal for the Sheltering Tree or the showers regarding the planning and zoning meeting,” Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson said, “if the paperwork is done, the process is set as a quasi-judicial hearing, and in that situation, until that time comes, this board will not be able to make any comments publicly, to you, to the press, regarding this issue, because that’s how that’s set up. Am I correct about that?”
“That’s correct,” the city attorney told the mayor.
It’s not necessarily so, however. State law provides for local city and county governments to easily allow their elected officials to have discussions with constituents, the press or anybody else before a land or zoning issue is presented to them at a hearing, as long as the officials disclose that interaction before the hearing. The law goes even further: “Local public officials may conduct investigations and site visits and may receive expert opinions regarding quasi-judicial action pending before them,” it states. “Such activities shall not be presumed prejudicial to the action if the existence of the investigation, site visit, or expert opinion is made a part of the record before final action on the matter.”
The law calls for local governments to adopt an ordinance making such interactions or investigations permissible. Bunnell does not have such an ordinance. Neither, however, does Flagler County, though county commissioners and the county’s zoning board members, before discussing given cases, routinely are asked or disclose so-called “ex parte” communications they may have had about the issue before them. And they routinely entertain questions from constituents or independently look into matters before such hearings. In other words, there is no prohibition on elected officials to investigate or discuss a zoning issue before a hearing.
A pastor calls out the Bunnell’s commission’s habit of praying before meetings, citing a Proverb: ‘defend the rights of the poor and needy.’
The Bunnell commissioners may have found it more convenient to avoid discussions with constituents on a sensitive matter, and wait until the hearing date–as they did on Monday, though no such date has been set.
Susan Bickings, who chairs the Sheltering Tree’s board, confirmed that an appeal will be filed. She was the first of seven or eight people who spoke to the commission Monday, evenly divided between proponents and opponents of the shelter.
“We are not giving up after the recent decision of the three-member zoning board two weeks ago,” Bickings said. “We do plan to appeal the zoning decision based on First Amendment separation of church and state, and we know that there have been lawsuits in the past against the city that have been won by churches who help people under the ministry. Our appeal would also be based on one member of the zoning commission being a current trustee of the church, and a former board member of the Sheltering Tree. He should have recused himself, and there would not have been a quorum for that meeting.” (Bickings was referring to Howard Kane.)
Bickings said the police and the sheriff’s office have brought in homeless people when it’s been cold. The Sheltering Tree pays for bus tickets for inmates who are released from the jail, so they can “get out of Bunnell, to actually leave here and go home,” she said. “We’ve worked with the sheriff’s office through the Stride program to help people go back to where they came from if they have a place to go. We don;t buy a bus ticket for somebody who wants to go to Las Vegas. They’ve got to have a mom or a dad or somebody at home who’s accepting them. We help people in Bunnell keep their housing by paying utility, rent and security deposits. We see people regularly who come to us for help. You know a lot of people live on the edge.”
For example, the Sheltering Tree has four pending requests for birth certificates from inmates who are about to be released: inmates can’t get an ID, can’t get a job and get back on their feet more productively, without a birth certificate. But the certificate costs $20. So the Sheltering Tree, which bought 76 birth certificates last year, pays for them. That then enables the person to get his or her papers in order and be more functional.
Jim Potochick, a Palm Coast volunteer at the shelter for a half dozen years, told the commission his work there has been “one of the most rewarding volunteer jobs that I’ve done in a long time.” He described the needs that draws people, including families with children or veterans, into the shelter. “Never in the time I’ve been working there, volunteering there, we’ve never had any major issues” on the night shifts, he said. And that happens only when the temperature dips below 40 degrees at night. The shelter was open 19 times last winter. A breakfast crew of volunteers prepares breakfast at 6 a.m. After that, the homeless pack up and leave.
“Many times when I get home, my wife is still in bed, and she has heard me say more than once, there but for the will of God go I,” Potochick said.
Steve Woodin, 200 Railroad Street, has several properties in town, “I and my tenants have been affected by the shelter being there. I think they definitely have a good mission, but they have it in the wrong location. I have lost tenants because of homeless people.” A tenant’s home was loitered on, he said, with her washer and dryer used while she was away from home because of an unsecured gate. The tenant moved out three and a half month into a two and a half year contract, he said. “So this has affected me adversely for a long time,” Wooden said, citing homelessness as a trigger of crime. He blamed media for misrepresenting facts and not putting out the truth.
A business owner said she’s had problems with the homeless for 15 years, with homeless people approaching customers, dropping beer cans, pitching tents, doing drugs. “It doesn;t seem to get any better,” she said.
John Le Tellier, a Sheltering Tree board member, agreed with Woodin about the truth not being out there. “The drug addicts and the homeless people that are in trouble get thrown out of the shelter and [we] ask the police to trespass them,” he said. Once that’s done, they’re not allowed back in for two years. He said the homeless operation initially operated under the church’s ministry until the Sheltering Tree took over the financing a few years ago to keep it running.
Penny Buckles, who lives four blocks away from the church, said she’s personally been accosted by homeless people in front of the church–while she was in her car (she called police in that case). She described fights, a passed-our drunkard in her ditch whom she ran off with a gun, and said the church is not the place for the shelter. A Grand Reserve resident, however, said criticism is being directed at “the wrong people.” He said whether or not the homeless are taken care of at the shelter or not, the homeless issue will persist–unless the issue itself were addressed. “We also have to make sure that the homeless shelter is doing exactly what needs to be [done] to make sure that we’re taking care of the people that are staying in there,” he said, a reference to some of the safety issues, such as sprinklers, that the church must address before the shelter could operate again–assuming the city commission were to reverse the zoning board’s vote.
Church on the Rock pastor James Bellino referred with irony to the prayer with which Bunnell commissioners routinely begin their meetings, and cited Proverb 31, “‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ That’s our job. You folks in authority should have that as a principle to do business. I value the businesses of this community., I’m a small business owner myself. But you guys have to look at this as all you’ve done is, you’ve kowtowed to other pressures and you’re just trying to kick it somewhere else. We’re kicking this can down the street. The [county] commissioners have sat there and said the same thing.”
Bellino was last to speak. Robinson repeated that the commission would not address the issue until it is before the commission in the context of the appeal hearing. She thanked the speakers’ civility.