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Determined Advocates Gather to Plan Reversal of Bunnell’s Vote Against Homeless Shelter

| June 17, 2019

Sue Bickings, right, addresses some 70 people at a meeting of the Sheltering Tree board in Bunnell this afternoon. The meeting was to discuss ideas on countering Bunnell's decision to shut down the cold-weather shelter after 11 years. (c FlaglerLive)

Sue Bickings, right, addresses some 70 people at a meeting of the Sheltering Tree board in Bunnell this afternoon. The meeting was to discuss ideas on countering Bunnell’s decision to shut down the cold-weather shelter after 11 years. (c FlaglerLive)

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.

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9 Responses for “Determined Advocates Gather to Plan Reversal of Bunnell’s Vote Against Homeless Shelter”

  1. John Le Tellier says:

    I did mention that the City had the choice to turn down even hearing an appeal. I admit I read that wrong on the City’s Website. “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” The is not the case for which I sincerely apologize.

    Sec. 22-8. – Appeals of planning, zoning and appeals board decision.
    An appeal of a planning, zoning, and appeals board decision on a site plan application must be filed with the community development department within 30 days of the meeting wherein the decision being appealed was rendered. The appeal must be in writing and shall state the specific requirement or condition being appealed and the reason(s) for the appeal . Upon receipt of an appeal from the appellant, the community development department will submit the appeal including the site plan application and all recommendations to the city clerk to be placed on the next available agenda of a regularly scheduled meeting of the city commission for consideration. Appeals of planning, zoning, and appeals board site plan decisions may be filed by:
    (1)  The applicant or owner;
    (2)  City administration; and
    (3)  Any aggrieved person or group with a proprietary interest within the city limits of Bunnell that will be affected by the project.

  2. Steve Naso says:

    I suggest that the Sheltering Tree board work on three different areas to address the issues. First, continue the public awareness plan to raise awareness of the issue and to show public support for helping the homeless.

    2. Cure the deficiencies as noted by the planning board and note the other improvements to the property in either the appeal or new application.

    3. Communicate with other Methodist churches in the area to explore potential collaborative efforts that can serve the entire Flagler County community.

    I believe there was an October 1 deadline for the shelter given by the planning commission. Please correct me if this date is off.

    I have more suggestions that might be helpful. Please feel free to contact me at

  3. Missy says:

    Why does the Sheltering Tree insist on having the “cold night” shelter at this location? As this article states all of the volunteers and members that attended the meeting (which are the ones supporting them) reside in Flagler Beach or Palm Coast. Wouldn’t it mane better sense to find somewhere in those areas?
    When it’s not a cold night where are the homeless going to be? You all do remember just last month Palm Coast was trying to move “relocate” the homeless at the library. So, what makes this any different? Some of the reasons noted for the “relocation” where because they were approaching people, there where children and the place needed to be cleaned. The homeless will still congregate on the “non-coldnights”. They are going to be offering meals, assistance with birth certificates and who knows what else. Why would they leave?
    So find a place or a program that gets them out of the neighborhoods of Bunnell.
    All church members and supporters could/ should take up to 4 homeless people in their home and they can take full responsibility at helping them.

  4. atilla says:

    So much for Bunnell’s mean streak.

  5. Mondexian Momma says:

    This from the lovely people who insist on a prayer before starting their meetings. Christian charity at it’s finest. Jesus would be so proud.

  6. Tracy Wells says:

    Missy wow you are something else ! I pray you never fall on hard times because karma will bite you in the backside!

  7. Michael Cocchiola says:

    This situation another indication of Flagler County’s indifference, even animosity, toward the homeless. They are here. They do not disappear when you take action like this or when you bulldoze them as the Flagler BOCC did at the county library. They are among us and we must help.

    So I ask… why deny the homeless a warm bed on a cold night? Why bulldoze their campgrounds without offering viable alternatives? Why do we spend millions of our tax dollars on sick or dilapidated buildings, yet nothing for the homeless like a true year-round shelter that offers real help?

    Why, Flagler??

  8. Bill says:

    Stay strong City of Bunnell!!!! The city belongs to the tax paying residents and businesses who have said “No More”! Don’t let these children bully you into the same mess as on the west coast!

  9. Tay says:

    Its very simple, move everything to Church on the Rock. They are already on record to accepting it all, have a bigger parking lot, bigger building and correct me if im wrong already have showers set up.

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