With Flagler County government taking a coordinating role, Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach, along with the county, are on course to jointly and for the first time underwrite a shelter for the homeless on cold nights. The financial move is modest, but it underscores a political recognition that homelessness is a joint governmental responsibility that transcends municipal borders.
The governments would jointly provide $24,000, or $6,000 each, to underwrite transportation for the homeless and security at the shelter. The shelter would move from Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church on North Pine Street to Church on the Rock, on U.S. 1–still in Bunnell, but at the north end of town and clear of surrounding homes. Church on the Rock Pastor James Bellino has been signaling his church’s potential as a sanctuary from Bunnell’s war of attrition on the shelter for months.
Monday evening, the Flagler County Commission voted 5-0 to ratify its part of an agreement that would formalize the new arrangement. But Sheltering Tree officials aren’t ready to say they’ll move yet, and they intend to host the rest of the season’s cold weather nights at First United. They also do not intend to move weekly Tuesday outreach operations from First United, even after the agreement is in place for cold nights.
The Sheltering Tree “is happy to see local governments come together to fund a cold weather shelter for our poorest Flagler County citizens,” Sue Bickings, who chairs the Sheltering Tree’s board, said today. (Sheltering Tree volunteers were not at the commission meeting Monday evening: they had their own board meeting.) “The recent interlocal agreement demonstrates that cooperation is needed between cities and county government to address the issue of homelessness. It is a county wide issue, not specific to any one area of the county.” An interlocal agreement is the technical term for a joint agreement between two or more local governments.
Like County Administrator Jerry Cameron, Bickings called the agreement a “first step.”
For 12 years, the Sheltering Tree, a non-profit, had been running a cold-weather shelter for homeless people throughout Flagler County, doing so at a kitchen and hall at First United Methodist Church in Bunnell. Once a week in good, fair and bad weather, the Sheltering Tree has also been providing social, health and logistical services to the homeless at the church.
The operation has upset neighbors on and off over the years. Neighbors, usually without evidence, have blamed the shelter operations for jeopardizing security, bringing drug addicts and crime and making it difficult to amble outside. Last June Bunnell’s city government, citing zoning rules that had never been an issue previously, declared the cold-weather shelter closed. If the weekly operations were to be affected, shelter organizers ignored it: they kept providing those services.
And they filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, charging that Bunnell had acted illegally by ignoring a provision in federal law that allows organizations under a religious umbrella to operate despite certain zoning restrictions. The Justice Department last fall announced it would investigate, and ordered Bunnell to stay its zoning decision pending the outcome of the investigation. The cold weather shelter has continued to operate, unimpeded, albeit not much this year: just seven nights so far this warm winter.
Meanwhile, Cameron worked with the city managers of the three cities to find some common ground and extricate the Sheltering Tree from its adversarial relationship with Bunnell.
“We were able to get together with the Sheltering Tree, the Church on the Rock and the City of Bunnell, and came to an equitable arrangement that would allow those activities to take place at the Church on the Rock,” Cameron said. “We approached the three major municipalities, and secured agreement with them that we would all share equally, because homelessness is not confined to one jurisdiction, and we came up with an arrangement that we would underwrite the cold weather shelter in providing security and bus routes, and the cost of security and opening the facility would be equally borne by the four jurisdictions with a maximum exposure of $6,000 a year.”
The three cities have yet to ratify the agreement. But Cameron suggested that should be ahead. The agreement is not effective until they sign on. They have time, given the Sheltering Tree’s decision to stay put for the remaining of the winter.
“I am grateful that the government agencies of this county are finally coming together to address homelessness in a pragmatic and human capacity,” First United Pastor Terry Wines, who has been among the most vocal champions of the Sheltering Tree, said today. “I believe this Interlocal agreement, if ratified by all parties, is a good beginning.” Wines says that while the cold weather shelter still operates out of First United, the church’s leadership “will support whatever decision the Sheltering Tree makes as it pertains to future locations. As for the weekly operations of the Sheltering Tree, the church and the Sheltering Tree have a contract as it pertains to office and storage space and weekly operations.”
Asked when the cold weather operation might move to Church on the Rock, Bickings said “that has yet to be determined. An operational agreement will be developed between Church on the Rock and The Sheltering Tree.”
Cameron said the county’s transportation option means picking up the homeless from encampments in the afternoon to drop them off at Church on the Rock, then returning them the next morning to where they were picked up. He sees it as “a good beginning of arrangements with private parties and creating public private partnerships to address issues that are too big for either non-profits or for the county itself to address, and this is a step in the right direction.”
Cameron did not take credit for the resolution. “It’s all of the jurisdictions stepping up,” he said. “It was very good meetings with a general desire with everyone to find a workable solution.”
“I commend you for getting this done. Good job,” Commissioner Greg Hansen told him.