The Bunnell City Commission this evening voted to end the 11-year existence of the Sheltering Tree, the cold-weather homeless shelter at First United Methodist Church–at least in Bunnell. The commission did so in a unanimous vote after a 90-minute hearing featuring advocates and opponents of the shelter, and after the commission itself discussed the matter only briefly.
The non-profit, whose 150-odd volunteers from all over the county would converge in teams on cold nights, when the temperature falls below 40, to care for homeless individuals at the church’s Fellowship Hall, was applying to the city for a special exception to be able to continue providing the service. The special exception is often a minor formality that hinges on a local government’s willingness to grant it. Bunnell was not so inclined.
“This is a legal issue. This is not a moral issue. I don’t believe there’s a taxpayer in the city limits of Bunnell that would not give bread to the hungry, or drink to the thirsty,” Commissioner John Rogers said, before summarizing what some of the public speakers had said, quoting scriptures, and describing his own works on behalf of the homeless. “This is a zoning issue, ladies and gentlemen.” Commissioner Jan Reeger referred to the long history of the Sheltering Tree’s existence–and controversies along the way, when “nothing has happened” to find a solution.
The cold-weather shelter operates barely a few nights a year. It did so for 19 nights last winter. Its location and operations have never been a problem (the police and the sheriff’s office’s deputies have frequently brought homeless individuals to the shelter), except to neighbors, who complain that the shelter is a magnet for homelessness. Homeless people walk around, linger even when the shelter isn’t open, and allegedly intimidate residents or create nuisances for businesses.
The city cited a series of issues with the Sheltering Tree’s operations, most of it focused on missing paperwork, some of it addressing safety matters, to argue for rejecting the exception.
Two weeks ago, the city commission had rejected First United Methodist Church’s application for a similar exception, that one addressing the church’s mission during natural emergencies. For years, First United Methodist Church has provided shelter to volunteer workers who have converged here during natural emergencies, when they work all day and need a place to rest at night. Teams did so during hurricanes Matthew and Irma. Two weeks ago, the city commission voted to prohibit the church from providing that kind of shelter. It did so because the commission feared that some of the amenities the church would provide volunteers could also be put to use for homeless individuals, and the commission was intent on severing every possible bridge to that ministry.
So tonight’s vote was a death foretold. Sheltering Tree volunteers, a few dozens of whom attended the meeting, knew it. The much smaller size of the audience, compared to the one two weeks ago, was an indication that most knew what the commission had essentially already decided. That battle was lost. But neither the church nor the Sheltering Tree organizations are done.
“We believe we have scriptures on our side, we believe we have the Constitution on our side, we also believe we have laws on our side,” United Methodist Church’s Pastor Terry Wines said. He intends to do battle legally, as do representatives of the Sheltering Tree. “We’ve already been in contact with getting legal advice.” Earlier today, Wines had conversations with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Legal Council. He said a legal challenge to the city’s decision is being considered.
“If things could come to a resolution by a letter, that would be great,” Wine said. “There are certainly things that can happen before you go into court.” Wines stressed that the Sheltering Tree would not be a bargaining chip in the church’s negotiations with the city: the Sheltering Tree is an integral part of the church’s ministry, he said.
Sarah Ulis, a Sheltering Tree board member, said the organization is discussing finding another location, but doesn’t have one at the moment. Winter months are not far: November and December could bring 40-degree nights. The organization knows it could find itself without a shelter then. “It’s possible,” Ulis said. “God knows what we will do but it’s possible. The other part is there’s no accommodation for emergency people. We had a place where to put 20 people. Now we don’t.”
“It is an issue that affects all of us,” Mike Cocchiola, the Palm Coast resident and ACLU of Flagler-Volusia board member, who explained why he was appearing before the city commission this evening, said. He told the commission that the Sheltering Tree does affect its neighbors, but that there could be a compromise. Surely good heads working together could find a place in a more commercial area, one that is acceptable to the city of Bunnell and its residents and one that is workable” to the church and the Sheltering Tree. “If that means partnering with Palm Coast in finding a place, that would be wonderful.”
Cocchiola had struck on something only occasionally spoken explicitly before the commission (or the city’s zoning board), as it has been in previous such meetings: Bunnell’s resentment over seemingly assuming a countywide responsibility, and particularly a responsibility seen as primarily Palm Coast’s. That feeling was soon made explicit this evening when a neighbor of the church said: “I’m tired of Palm Coast bullying Bunnell.” She said said her granddaughters can’t go out in their yard because of “the disgusting things” that go on “out there.”
“The sheltering tree had 11 years to figure it out,” Patrick MacDonald, owner of Lucky Tattoo in Bunnell, said. “What the Sheltering Tree is trying to do, it’s a nice thing, they need to take it somewhere else.” Others spoke the same fears and claims, few of them documented but none of them challenged either by the city administration or by commissioners, that have been spoken by neighbors every time the issue has been on the agenda of the commission or its zoning board: that the homeless bring crime, drop hypodermic needles, include sex offenders. Or, as another Bunnell resident put it about Sheltering Tree board members, “they’re perfectly fine to shove it down our throat and put it in my backyard.”
“There’s a lie being propagated here by this situation here,” a Palm Coast resident said in defense of the Sheltering Tree. Namely, he said, that if the Sheltering Tree was made to leave the city, the homeless will follow. “The opposite is the truth,” he said.
“Just because we want peace in our neighborhood doesn’t make us heartless and heathens,” Kim Smith, a North Chapel Street resident, said.
Wines, addressing the commission toward the end of the public-comment period, quoted scriptures and pleaded with commissioners to work with the church toward a solution.
“The death of the dream and the ashes and what comes out of that can be a beautiful thing for the community,” Mayor Catherine Robinson said after the vote.