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Bunnell Commission Ends Homeless Shelter Operations After 11 Years; Church Pledges Legal Fight

| July 8, 2019

sheltering tree

The Bunnell City Commission this evening before the vote. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

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12 Responses for “Bunnell Commission Ends Homeless Shelter Operations After 11 Years; Church Pledges Legal Fight”

  1. JimBob says:

    The real lesson to be learned can be found in Jesus’ parable of the Diminishing Property Values which has been secularised as NIMBY.

  2. Edith Campins says:

    This is absolutely unbelievable. Shame on Bunnell and its citizens. No, the homeles will not g away. What they have insured is that here will be a tragedy next time the weather turns cold and the homeles have no place to go. Really, a tatoo parlor is better for the neighborhood than the Sheltering Tree?

  3. Karen Robinson says:

    Edith, you say shame on the Bunnell citizens, but you don’t have a clue. For almost 2 years I fed one of the homeless young men until he got his life going right and was able to leave the streets. Yet also in that time, grown men have come into my yard, urinated on the fence, passed out drunk, one lady was stoned out of her mind and had to be transported to the hospital. Tell me how you would have handled it? I have grandchildren that come to visit and I can’t in all good conscience allow them to go play outside with these men there. That is pure foolishness. The actual problem is not the homeless as they make up a small percent of the vagrants that are here. The problem is that The Sheltering Tree was operating illegally and that the property the church sits on is not zoned for an entity like this. We have laws, rules, regulations that we must obey and that goes for Christians and non-Christians alike. They are what keeps a city running smoothly and safely. Please think before you condemn one little town. Walk a mile in our shoes.

  4. Bunnell Homeowner says:

    The tattoo parlor is not in a residential area…Get your fact straight. It doesn’t even matter what type of business he runs as he does it all legally.
    As for a tragedy, I see that as a possibility with something happening to one of our children from a homeless person more of the issue here.

  5. oldtimer says:

    The owner of the tatoo parlor has a job, pays taxes and doesn’t ask me for money to spend on beer.

  6. Concerned Citizen says:

    I wonder if any of the members of the Bunnell BOCC has experienced hard times? I highly doubt it. Most are acting like the overly entitled selfish politicians that is the norm in this county.

    You say your enforcing zoning laws and enforcing codes. I call BS. What you did was allow another bunch of self entitled selfish people to use your meager little city powers to wage war on an epidemic that won’t go away over night.

    While my interactions have not always been pleasant with the homeless I have done my part to feed and cloth them. And will continue to do so. The large bulk of them are just like you and me and fell on hard times. Granted there are a few in that crowd just like anywhere else that are bad and are taking advantage of the situation, most just want a place to live and to provide for themselves.

    It takes a community to sometimes fix the larger issues. What I see here saddens me. People care more about tatoos and bars than they do the wellfare of others. The not in my back yard mentality is fine and all but what happens when YOU fall on hard times and no longer have the back yard?

    @ Our County/City Officials And Members Of The Community.

    With the amount of wanton waste of financial resources in this county we can come up with a better solution. Instead of wasting money on special interest resteraunts and developments that will never make it. Use that bribe money to build shelters. Use that money to fund programs ffor education and job training,

    Set up an intake process that screens with back ground checks and mandatory drug screening. If you willingly comply great. If you test dirty then there are consequences. Other places have done it. Why can’t Flagler? Simple answer. No one wants to. Everyone either turns a blind eye or uses the law to hide it.

    Everyone claims to follow sone sort of religion. Regardless of whom you worship ask yourself what is the right thing to do.

    Remember it can happen to any of us.

  7. Steve says:

    Tell them to move on, best for all parties involved

  8. Whitley little says:

    I think drug testing should be a thing all homeless shelters should do I was homeless for about a year and hang out with alot of the homeless in that time yes most of them were hungry we’re cold and really hot at times but alot of them got food stamps they sold for drugs SSI and alots of other government assistance that all went on drugs and alcohol I was able to pull myself by Workin hard and not using I feel bad for them but mostly it’s them self’s hold them back ..sorry not sorry

  9. Reinhold Schlieper says:

    I found the commission’s attempt to separate “zoning” issues from “moral” issues rather chilling. Himmler’s Posen speech came to mind immediately. Here the commissioners are standing to their knees in the living corpses of our ill begotten capitalist system and are spouting their own personal unblemished morality. It boggles the mind. Perhaps all those upstanding citizens who opposed the very limited shelter operation should be mindful of the reflection: “Here but for the grace of god go I,” said by a person observing culprits to be hanged. I wonder how many paychecks the upstanding citizens are away from the same fate. For the education of the commissioners, busing the homeless to Daytona doesn’t solve the problem; handing out toilet paper and toothbrushes in backpacks doesn’t do anything either. The issue is not your clean vest; the issue is how to solve societal problems. We cannot blame people for doing publicly what we all do privately when they have no privacy to resort to. And Jesus did not create order in the temple; he threw out all the financial dealers. Jesus was no capitalist. The average life expectancy of homeless people is 47 years; there are far more crimes done to the homeless than by the homeless; almost every third homeless person is a veteran. And lest one should think that homelessness is a choice, do take a look at Aesop’s fable of the fox with the sour grapes when next a homeless person tells you that it’s his CHOICE to live that lifestyle.

  10. agregious386 says:

    I thought I read it somewhere…..7 x 70

  11. Looking around says:

    Where was the Sheltering Tree when they ran all the homeless off from the Library in Palm Coast? Where where all you do gooders when it was about Palm Coast homeless? Is Palm Coast the only community that can run off homeless??????

  12. Dave says:

    I have no doubt that anyone involved in getting this facility shutdown will face judgement by God. Do the right thing and ask for forgiveness now before it’s too late. Save yourself and cleanse your soul of these sins cast upon the weak and less fortunate.

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