The Sheltering Tree has ensured that Flagler County’s only cold-weather shelter will operate for its 12th year this winter, overcoming a decision by the Bunnell City Commission to shut it down. The commission Monday evening voted not to enforce its prohibition, but only in compliance with what it described as a “directive” from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the city’s zoning-based prohibition. The allowance is in effect for the duration of the investigation.
Meanwhile, Sheltering Tree officials and advocates are asking the city to work with the organization toward a compromise, and describing themselves committed to accommodate residents’ concerns. Residents surrounding the location of the shelter, at First United Methodist Church on Pine Street, complain of loitering, unsightliness, refuse and other issues they blame on the homeless. The homeless congregate at the church not just on cold weather nights, but weekly, when the church distributes goods from its food pantry, and when the Sheltering Tree holds office hours to help the destitute with specific needs.
“We dearly want to work with the city on any issues that come up or any concerns that you have,” Martin Collins, a Sheltering Tree board member, told city commissioners. “This isn’t about winning or losing an issue. This isn’t about us being happy that the city had to change direction.” He said the organization is not happy, and in fact the federal investigation is open-ended, its outcome uncertain. “We hope that somewhere in the middle we can find a compromise that works for all of us.”
The goal for both the Sheltering Tree and the city, he said, should be to be able to continue to help the homeless. “and one thing I personally learned from the public meetings was that we need to reach out and respect the concerns of the people of Bunnell,” Collins said.
To that end, he said the Sheltering Tree office hours that had been held concurrently with the food pantry hours on Wednesdays, causing a large turn-out not only of homeless people but people in need, have been moved to a different day–Tuesday–and those who seek help on that day are required to wait in the church’s courtyard, thus further reducing their presence in neighbors’ eyes. The organization is also requiring check-ins and, in essence, trespassing those who don’t comply with basic rules, such as using drugs or alcohol around the premises.
“They are decent human beings who lived lives like me and you for 20, 30, 40 years, and then they hit on bad times. Most of those people have a lot of dignity and self-respect and behave themselves in a mannerly way,” Collins said. But he recognized that there are a few “bad apples.” Those should not define the organization’s work. He called on the city to “discuss a way of doing a better job to touch the residents’ concerns.”
John Le Tellier, the Sheltering Tree board member who filed the Department of Justice complaint in June, said the organization was always willing to adapt and cooperate. “We always have, we always will. We love to work with the city,” Le Tellier said. “Going to the department of justice was the last thing on our mind. However we felt we needed to.”
But he had another observation for commissioners. He showed them images of the church on Pine Street before it became surrounded by residential homes, and before the city even had residential zoning there. And he read from the church’s mission statement, which has always included a ministry to the homeless, he said. “We are part of the church’s vision,” he said.
“That church has been here for a hundred years, and their mission hasn’t changed.”
A church trustee also addressed the commission to press the point of cooperation and compromise, before Jerry Cameron, the county administrator, stood up to speak. It was the first time the top county official had appeared before the Bunnell commission to speak directly on the homeless issue, and to acknowledge that it was not Bunnell’s problem exclusively (though he did not absolve Bunnell of shouldering what responsibility it can in its backyard).
“I can almost cry right now over what you just stood there and said,” Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson said, “because I’ve been talking about the homeless problem and doing something globally for the homeless, not just little bits and pieces, since 20011, and this is the first time that I’ve seen someone from the county come and say it’s a county problem, and we’re going to work on it on a county level.”
She was right. Bunnell has spearheaded discussions on debate on the issue since 2011, at times as a result of the friction between residents and the Sheltering Tree, at times just to bring homeless discussions into the open, in the search for solutions. The city hosted a community meeting in 2011, when Robinson explicitly spoke her mantra–”It’s a flagler County problem.” Two years later it addressed the matter to a near-full house during a commission meeting, when the Sheltering Tree was again on the defensive and forced to justify its existence, and two months later hosted a community forum on the issue at its old city hall. County officials, including the county administrator (Craig Coffey) attended, but, notably, Coffey did not speak. And Palm Coast and Flagler Beach officials didn’t bother showing up. That sent Robinson the message that she’s been battling since: that it’s a Bunnell problem.
Obviously, she was pleased to hear Cameron say unequivocally that homelessness is “a critical issue for the entire county.”
But Cameron speaks slowly and chooses his words deliberately. His message was full of sympathy, but also shared, not unilateral, responsibility: if it is a countywide problem, in other words, Bunnell still has a critical role to play, especially when it is, or was, already playing it.
“By definition homeless people don’t have an address, so they aren’t Bunnell’s problem, they’re the community’s problem,” Cameron said. “It has fallen on you to at this particular time have to address an aspect of homelessness.” That doesn’t displace the fact that it is a nationwide problem, he said, or that it took him 10 years in St. Johns County, where he was in county government, to line up services for the homeless.
“But this is a time that the community needs to realize and own the countywide problem of homelessness,” Cameron said. “We support you in any way that we can. We will continue to work on a permanent solution that has countywide ownership, and I’m led to believe that the other municipalities are willing to step up and share some of the burden to keep this from being just a Bunnell problem. It extends far beyond co-ownership. The homeless problem has to be addressed on a systemic basis. As soon as I can get some of these other fires put out, I intend to devote a considerable amount of energy to it.”