For the past eight years the homeless in Flagler County have known of one place they can call home more than any other that’s not in the woods or under a bridge: the grounds and courtyard of the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell. There, the homeless have been able to keep locker-type boxes for their belongings, use a rest room at all hours, relax in the church’s interior courtyard, and even smoke on the grounds.
Most of that is about to change. The church is removing the boxes, closing the courtyard to the homeless, and closing access to the bathroom—which volunteers have been stocking and cleaning—except for Wednesdays and Sunday morning. That may mean that the homeless, who have congregated in and around the church for years, may now be more visible in the community at large. The Sheltering Tree, a non-profit organization that’s run most of the services for the homeless at the church—including the homeless shelter that opens overnight whenever the temperature falls to 40 or below—will now be charged $150 a month for the use of two rooms on the ground, rooms used to store cots and clothing that’s distributed to the homeless.
“They don’t want those people there anymore,” says Carla Traister, who chairs the Sheltering Tree board and calls herself the bathroom cleaner (she’s also paid for most of the supplies). “They feel that we’re enabling them and that by providing a bathroom and a place to wash up we’re keeping them from being able to be independent, and there’s no reason for them to be getting a job because they’ve got everything they need.”
First United had built a reputation as the county’s friendliest venue to the homeless when it was under the leadership of Rev. Beth Gardner, who left the parish in early summer after 15 years. She is now the pastor at College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland. Gardner was replaced by Rev. Terry Wines, who’s been reviewing the church’s direction, listening to parishioners—some of whom object to the presence of the homeless on the grounds, though that’s nothing new—and contending with difficult finances since the 2008 downturn, though he says the finances have nothing to do with policy changes.
Wines says he is no less committed or passionate about the homeless ministry. He points to his experience in levy County, where he was instrumental in establishing a full-time outreach program where the homeless and others in need could be “processed” and have access to numerous services. Flagler County has something similar in Access Flagler, the every-other-month Friday event at Cattlemen’s Hall at the county fairgrounds. A more permanent system is not in the works for now, says Joe Mayer, who heads flagler county government’s community services operations.
Fairly or not, that leaves it to places like First United and the Church on the Rock in Bunnell, which provides laundry and shower services to the homeless every Thursday, to shoulder much of the responsibility for homeless. Patience is running out for the current approach.
“There are always going to be some who are not going to be happy with a homeless ministry,” Wines said this morning, before a meeting with Traister to further discuss the new approach. “What I found after a three-month review of talking with many people in our congregation, the greatest frustration was that we didn’t have a structured ministry, and while the ministry is very well intended and the compassion is there for the ministry, there hasn’t been enough structure, in other words the ministry hasn’t evolved as the homeless problem has evolved.”
Wines’s intentions are to look at a broader picture and connect with local non-profits to help the homeless. The church itself isn’t closing its doors to them. The soul café that provides a free meal every Wednesday evening will still operate, and when staff is on the grounds, no one will be denied access to the bathrooms, he says. But there will be necessary limits. “Unfortunately we have to deal with the real world and we have a property that we are stewards of,” Wines said. “we have to be concerned with the safety of the people who come on our property, and if we just open the doors and there’s no one here and someone gets injured, hurt, assaulted, there’s no way we can help them. There’s no way we can protect them, there’s no one there to call the police, there no one to be an advocate for them.”
Gardner declined to comment, saying that to allow a healthier transition it would not be appropriate to discuss the new leadership.
The homeless ministry at the church has contended with resistance from within and without over the years. On past occasions, Gardner withstood immense pressure from Bunnell businesses and some residents to close the ministry. Community meetings with opponents of the shelter defused the opposition, and the city, along with its police department, eventually became a close partner. The ministry has carried on since 2011 quietly and steadily. Now it’ll have to find a new way of providing its service. That role will include the church, Wines stresses.
“I was appointed here because there was a need to reach out to the homeless and to other people in this area who feel are marginalize,” the pastor said, “and all we are trying to do right now is to sort these things out and to see how the church, working with the Sheltering Tree, can try to do that. Unfortunately you have to look at the big picture of things. But if the church isn’t open, then we can’t do homeless ministry.”
“There hasn’t been any advancement at all” regarding the homeless in the community, Wines continued. “It’s frustrating to people who don’t want anybody to get any help, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstrap’—that stuff drives me crazy—but there’s also a problem when you’re just driving on compassion, if you don’t have a plan, if you don’t know where you’re going, then we’re just putting a band-aid on the problem.”
Traister says the Sheltering Tree is on the lookout for a new facility or area where it could provide some of the services that were available on the grounds of the church. Nothing has turned up so far. She can see why certain people want the homeless to be more responsible for themselves. But sometimes that’s not possible: they wouldn’t be homeless otherwise. “We’d like them to be more productive but for the chronically homeless, that’s really hard to expect of them,” Traister said. “It’s hard for us to understand and it’s hard for them to know why.”
Traister added, “The hardest thing for me is that we’ll lose the relationship we have with the homeless. I don’t know how stupid this is, how ridiculous this sounds, but they don’t have a whole lot of ties to different parts of society, and I feel like we are abandoning them. But I know that Terry Wines, the pastor, he is something different, and it’s not going to be a negative thing, but there’s just this in-between place, and time, that’s just stressful for us.”
The next Access Flagler event will be December 4th at the Cattlemen’s hall at the County Fairgrounds, from 1 to 4 p.m. Free Information & Services Available: food, clothing, haircuts, tax preparation, WIC, health screenings, SNAP (food stamps), free phones for hearing impaired and much more. The event is sponsored by Pastor Charles Silano, Grace Tabernacle Ministries and the Flagler County Division of Human Services. For more information call: Pastor (386)586-2653 or (386) 931-4158 or Janet Nickels: (386) 586-2324 ext 323. See the full Flagler County Resource Directory below.