More than 70 supporters of Bunnell’s cold-weather shelter for the homeless gathered at First United Methodist Church Monday afternoon, led by the shelter’s board of directors, to plan strategy on reversing a city government board’s decision in May to shut down the shelter after 11 years.
Not a single member of the city administration or the city commission was present as the 90-minute meeting took place at the church’s Fellowship Hall, a short walk from Bunnell City Hall.
Sue Bickings, who chairs the Sheltering Tree board, cautioned the audience at the beginning of the meeting that it was intended exclusively for supporters of the shelter, “not for people who have something to say on the other side.” The meeting was essentially a Sheltering Tree board meeting that the board opened to supporters. It did not fall under Sunshine law requirements, nor requirements to open the floor to all voices. The Sheltering Tree is a volunteer non-profit organization.
Bickings said there are other venues where opposing views can and have been spoken. The caution was superfluous: the audience was as unanimously supportive of the Sheltering Tree as the city’s planning board had been unanimously opposed to it, only in greater numbers. But a large part of the audience was not necessarily from Bunnell. The shelter’s volunteers are overwhelmingly drawn from Palm Coast and Flagler Beach.
Backings was candid when someone in the audience asked why the Bunnell planning and zoning board voted to shut down the shelter: “It’s nimby,” Bickings said, speaking the acronym that spells “not in my back yard.” She said the shelter is not an issue in Flagler Beach and Palm Coast. And in fact the only voices voiced against the shelter have been those of Bunnell residents and business owners who say they experience what residents elsewhere do not—the loitering, crime and to inappropriate behavior they say the homeless bring to their neighborhood. But Palm Coast is not without its colonies of homeless people, and the association between the homeless and crime is generally overstated: arrests of homeless individuals are rare in the county, based on sheriff’s documentation.
The city’s 3-0 planning board decision stunned the board of the Sheltering Tree, which runs the cold weather shelter with a corps of 150 volunteers, on fewer than two dozen nights a year when the overnight temperature falls below 40 degrees. The decision ratified a recommendation by the city’s new community development director, Rodney Lucas, who cited the church’s and the Sheltering Tree’s code deficiencies, including non-compliant fire-suppression systems, bathrooms non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Sheltering Tree’s lack of a permit, for 11 years, allowing it to operate the shelter.
A Habitat for Humanity official said she was willing to sit down with Lucas to familiarize him with the Sheltering Tree. “Our mission here is to get the Sheltering Tree back,” she said, then help Bunnell help the chronically homeless. But Chuck Bergen, the Methodist church’s contractor and a trustee of the church, said he had that sort of conversation with Lucas, and described him as someone who would let him to believe he’d take one approach, only to take another later.
“Yes we can be upset about it, but let the main thing be the main thing right now,” Rev. Terry Wines, the pastor at the Methodist church, told the assembly Monday. He sought to redirect frustrations by community members directed at the city administration or other issues that could distract from the aim at hand. “What’s going to get us is passion which is bridled in love and so we’ve got to be able to be focused on the mission, and the mission is to get that special exemption set up,” Wins said.
For the majority of the meeting, Bickings filled three broad sheets with “brainstorming” ideas about what to do next: Ask the planning board to reconsider its vote, start appearing before the city commission at every meeting, press the appeal (many in the assembly were under the impression that the city commission could deny so much as hearing an appeal, outside of a meeting, which is not the case), start a petition, put economic pressure on local businesses, reach out to other churches for support, tell the story of homeless individuals more broadly, to change Bunnell residents’ perception of the homeless as trouble-makers, or as exclusively trouble-makers, and so on.
But the brainstorming session also illustrated the extent to which the Sheltering Tree is treading foreign territory: its organization is narrowly targeted to one purpose–running the cold weather shelter, running fund-raisers, helping homeless people or inmates with numerous incidental measures, such as getting birth certificates that make it easier to get a job, or helping inmates and homeless individuals get back on their feet through other ways. The organization is not set up for a political fight. But in its early years, under different leadership, it had to do exactly that on two occasions: in 2011 and 2013, when the city commission came under pressure from residents and businesses to shut down the shelter. The commission resisted. The shelter went on. Permits and special exceptions were never an issue–until today.
There’s a fight ahead, we’re going to be respectful,” Bickings said, urging the assembly to “speak with one voice” and with persistence.