The clash has been brewing for months. What was perhaps less expected was the way the clash gradually gave way, over a 150-minute meeting, to conversation—passionate at times, moving at others, tense only on a few occasions—and a desire to solve a common problem.
Bunnell’s cold-weather shelter at the First United Methodist Church is in its third winter, its nascent presence coinciding with the local economy’s collapse. It opens when the temperature falls to 40 or below. The church itself ministers to the homeless on warmer days, though it doesn’t let them sleep there. A few Bunnell businesses and residents—not many, but a couple of them with a large enough imprint among Bunnell businesses to catch the city government’s ear—don’t want the homeless there. They see the place as a magnet for trouble.
Monday evening, the two sides’ advocates faced each other for the first time. And agreed to face each other again soon and broaden the discussion beyond Bunnell.
A common theme: more communications between the businesses and the church, more supervision of the homeless on days when the cold-weather shelter isn’t open, more interaction between the businesses, the church and the police—and more involvement by the other cities and the county. “It’s a Flagler County problem” wasn’t just Mayor Catherine Robinson’s conclusion, but words spoken by other commissioners and members of the audience on any side of the issue.
It could have been worse: tension at the beginning of the meeting was not unwarranted. They were arrayed in two rows facing each other. On one side, Scott Sowers, the head of the Bunnell Chamber of Commerce, two business owners, including Ken Hansen, owner of Hansen Furniture, and a resident. On the other, Beth Gardner, the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church, the church secretary, three directors of the cold-weather homeless shelter that opens at the Church on the coldest night, and the executive director of the Volusia-Flagler Homeless Coalition.
Every seat in the room was taken, some 80 people in all, including some who stood, some who sat on the floor, some who leaned against a table in the back. Most were there supporting the shelter.
The meeting, civil at every point except for when a woman–Ken Hansen’s wife, Lilly–called the church’s pastor a liar for claiming the homeless weren’t sleeping at the church even on warm days, was mediated by Judi Stetson, Bunnell’s special projects director. The choice wasn’t coincidental: Stetson has the temperament of a conflict-resolution specialist, too. Stetson organized the meeting at the city commission’s urging as a starting point to bridging the two sides and finding a solution to the issue.
Hansen began by laying out the matter from the businesses’ perspective: “We’ve never had a problem in 20 years until the church started housing people in its facility,” he said. “I have had to run them off from our parking lot, trying to panhandle from our customers. It has been a real pain.” He spoke of chronic thefts on his property, mounds of beer cans left in his property’s yard, and a crack pipe he found there. He had a petition signed by 27 people asking for an injunction against the church to stop operating the shelter in any way. Kathy Hall, the owner of a beauty salon, echoed Hansen’s descriptions, though wih more compassion toward the church’s purpose. “I have a lot of elderly people and they’re afraid to come in,” she said. “It’s getting out of hand, it’s just getting way out of hand.”
Gardner presented the shelter’s perspective, denying that homeless people sleep on the property, and differentiating between the cold weather shelter and the church’s ministry, even when it’s warm. “We are not a members only church,” she said, though there are established rules for those who do spend time on the property—and the problem is not limited to Bunnell anymore that the problem itself is limited to homelessness. “Our church is not a homeless shelter. We just happen to love the homeless. They are not the only ones we love,” Gardner said, noting the 800 families who have received food packages from the church’s pantry this season. “We are doing our part to prevent homelessness and we are sharing with others the love that has changed our lives.”
As the meeting wore on, the problem appeared somewhat less grave, or at least as widespread, than the complaining businesses were making it out to be: two business owners whose properties are in the same neighborhood disputed the picture of fear and panhandling or crime that shelter opponents were painting. “I know there are some of the elements that are causing problems, there’s the drugs, there’s the theft, there’s the crime,” Jan Reeger, a realtor, said. But no one, she said, has been able to show that those problems are related to the homeless. There’s crime regardless.
Twenty-four people spoke once Stetson opened the floor to the public, only three of whom speaking clearly in opposition to the shelter’s presence at the church. Many of the others were either volunteers at the shelter or advocates (and many of the residents of Flagler Beach and Palm Coast). A handful were more neutral, suggesting ideas rather than finding fault.
By the end of the second hour of the meeting, even the business owners were modulating their opposition, one of them stressing that the issue was not an us-against-them situation, and Hansen conceding that he was not opposed to the idea of a cold-weather shelter, or even a permanent shelter. He was only “disappointed” in the shelter organizers not finding a place other than at the church. (In an aside with Gardner after the meeting, he offered to sell her church the building for a permanent shelter.)
“It’s too important an issue for us to let emotions get in the way,” Armando Martinez, the Bunnell city manager, said. He’ll be inviting the county administrator and Palm Coast’s and Flagler Beach’s city managers at the next meeting on the issue. That meeting will include two representatives from the church, two from the public, two from the business community, and members of the Bunnell administration.