Volunteers at the cold-weather shelter in Bunnell got word last week that opponents to the shelter might go to the Bunnell City Commission Monday evening and complain. It wasn’t clear about what. And it never became clear: opponents of the shelter, or to some of the things associated with the shelter, did not materialize.
Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson said that she had received some complaints. But she wouldn’t specify from who or how many, beyond saying that some businesses were complaining about panhandlers. One of the shelter’s advocates, who happens to be a Bunnell business owner, pressed Robinson to be more specific but got nowhere.
Rev. Beth Gardner, the pastor at First United Methodist Church, clarified for the city council that the church ministry welcomes everyone to the church any day of the week: The homeless have access to the bathrooms 24 hours a day. They are welcome to help with the upkeep and maintenance at the church. No one is allowed to sleep at the property at night, unless it’s a cold night, when the temperature dips to 40 degrees or below. That’s when the shelter actually opens for the night.
“The number of homeless friends that we have, we can count on two hands,” Gardner said. “Most of them have been in Flagler County for a number of years. No one is allowed to consume alcohol or drugs on site. There’s all kinds of rumors that happen about things that go on, it would amaze you–it amazes me to hear what people think that I do. We make a difference in the lives of people in our community.” The idea is to prevent homelessness, not to enable it, she said, but also to minister to those who need help. (in a previous story on the cold-weather shelter, just one comment, anonymous of course, was critical of the shelter.)
In early January, members of the board of the cold weather shelter, which goes by the name of Sheltering Tree, met with Arthur Jones, the Bunnell police chief, and members of the Bunnell city administration–including Judi Stetson, Bunnell’s grants administrator–to discuss preventive and longer-range issues as well as an annual census of the homeless. Jones estimated there are 45 homeless people in Bunnell proper. But discussion included mention of some 15 or so homeless people who aren’t part of the church’s social circle, but who associate with homeless people who are, and who tend to be causing more problems than the church group. In other words, there may be homeless cliques. But meeting participants agreed that homelessness, as an issue, would not be solved or managed except by a coalition of government, businesses and non-profit agencies.
The Volusia/Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless documented 79 homeless people in Flagler County in 2010 (compared to 2,076 in Volusia County), 71 in 2008 (compared to 1,843), and 67 in 2008 (1,734). The 2011 numbers were to be compiled this week.
“I just needed to start the conversation publicly, to say that we’re already working to partner and to be helpful in this community,” Gardner told the commission. “We do that because we are United Methodists, and it’s a part of who we are to combine social justice with our faith.”
Robinson said the matter would eventually make it on the commission’s agenda.
“I think it was probably some rumors out there that drove the interest tonight, and obviously there’s another side to the story,” Robinson said Monday evening. “I don’t think that the issue that my complaint that I heard–a complaint has not been surrounding the shelter or the work that you do, but what the homeless do once they leave the shelter, and to the businesses,” that is, “the businesses that have to deal with the panhandling. I’m just throwing that out because I know that’s part of the issue here.”
Commissioner Daisy Henry had only a few words for Gardner and others who spoke in support of the ministry and the shelter: “Let rumors talk. Do what you’ve got to do.”
Stay tuned, after Charlotte Marten’s recap of the week’s events, for a report on the Sheltering Tree and the homeless issue at the city commission earlier this week.
The cold-weather shelter, incidentally, will be open tonight(Jan. 26), and likely for the following two nights, as temperatures are forecast to be at or below 40 again.