The federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Jacksonville are investigating Bunnell city government’s zoning rules and practices as a result of the city’s decision in July to shut down the cold-weather homeless shelter that operated for 11 years at First United Methodist Church on North Pine Street.
The civil rights division is also requesting that the city allow the cold-weather shelter to open this winter, pending the resolution of the investigation. The city said it will comply.
The investigation, likely to be expensive, burdensome and time-consuming for the city, will also examine the city’s parallel vote to deny the church its request to continue serving as a shelter for emergency responders during disasters or other emergencies locally or regionally. The city imposed a restriction on the church that would limit it to have no more volunteers staying there at such times than if it were a residential home, which essentially ends the church’s function as an emergency responder shelter.
“Our investigation is preliminary in nature, and we have not made any determination as to whether there has been a violation” of federal law by the city, the Justice Department said in its letter to the city.
Both the investigation and the re-opening of the shelter this winter are victories for the Sheltering Tree, the non-profit that runs the shelter with 150 volunteers and the church’s support. Its board members contended that while some technicalities and paperwork may have been overlooked or been incomplete, it was entirely within the city’s power to ratify a special exception that would have allowed the church and the organization to continue providing services to the homeless. The Sheltering Tree is the only such shelter in the county.
Conversely, the federal investigation shines a light on one of the more high-profile recommendations to the city commission by City Manager Alvin Jackson and Community Development Director Rodney Lucas, who’d been on the job a matter of months at the time, and whose conduct toward Sheltering Tree officials and Rev. Terry Wines, the church’s pastor, had been dismissive. Neither Jackson nor Lucas had suggested any form of compromise, recommending outright denial of zoning exceptions to both the church and the Sheltering Tree. It was “just telling us no based on the weeping and whining and gnashing of teeth of neighbors,” as Wines described it.
But it was ultimately the city commission’s decision.
The Bunnell City Commission voted unanimously on July 8 to deny the special exceptions, claiming, in the words of Vice Mayor John Rogers, that it was “a zoning issue.” He was accurate in so far as defining the type of issue before the commission. But while it was in the city’s power to grant the exception, it did not do so because it was responding to local residents’ perceptions that the shelter was a place for the rest of the county to dump its problems on, after years of doing nothing to find an alternative. In fact, the city commission itself had implicitly endorsed the cold-weather shelter earlier in the decade after holding meetings with residents and opting, without a vote, to let the shelter be.
In July, with a new administration, the city was also responding to its own community development department, which was recommending the closure based on allegations that the shelter had long operated out of compliance by not having the right documents in place. But some of those allegations were false, among them the community development department’s claim that the Sheltering Tree had failed fire inspections.
By then, John Le Tellier, a board member of the Sheltering Tree, had already filed the complaint with the Justice Department. He’d done so the morning of June 13, nine days after the city’s zoning board recommended that the operation be shut down. Le Tellier did so before his board had even met to map out a strategy to preserve the shelter. When the board met with supporters on June 17, there was much general talk but no consensus strategy, and the city commission’s vote was all but foretold.
It’s never been clear where or how the Sheltering Tree would provide cold-weather services once that cold weather arrives. But, to the dismay of some supporters, the organization continued to provide occasional daytime services for the homeless at the church once a week. “We just did it,” Le Tellier said.
Last Friday (Oct. 22), the city received the Civil Rights Division’s letter informing Mayor Catherine Robinson of the investigation.
“That is phenomenal, that would be great,” Le Tellier said.
“We’re very pleased that the city has come to this decision, they’ve come to their senses basically,” Wines said of the city’s agreeing to let the shelter reopen during the investigation. “The department of justice has basically been answering the complaint. I’m just glad that they responded to it. It’s an answer to prayers, no doubt about it. I’ll give the DOJ all the credit in the world, but we were worried with November coming.” Wines had himself referred to the federal law the justice department is citing whenever he addressed the issue publicly.
The division is investigating the case under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law, the Justice Department’s Shina Majeed informed Bunnell in the letter, “prohibits application of a land use regulation that: (1) imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise absent a compelling justification pursued in the least restrictive means; (2) treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions; (3) discriminates against religious entities on the basis of religion or religious denomination; and/or ( 4) totally excludes or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.”
The department is requesting reams of documentation and archives from Bunnell.
“We also understand that  the Church’s cold weather shelter was the only cold weather shelter in Bunnell and all of Flagler County and that the temperature in Flagler County can reach 40 degrees or lower as early as November,” Majeed’s letter reads. “Because of the impending arrival of colder temperatures, we respectfully request that City permit the Church to operate the cold weather shelter during the 2019-2020 winter season, while the United States conducts its investigation.”
Wade Vose, the city’s attorney, has been in contact with Noah Sacks, an attorney with the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice, winning an extension to Nov. 22 before Bunnell submits all requested documents. Vose notes in an Oct. 29 letter the distinction between who actually runs the cold-weather shelter (the church is often seen as its sponsor). “While we believe these facts, among many others, should be relevant to your inquiry,” Vose wrote, “we understand that it does not change the Department of Justice’s position at this preliminary stage concerning its directive that the cold weather shelter be allowed to operate during the pendency of your investigation.”
The Sheltering Tree is not a religious organization, but it operates in one, and Bunnell’s zoning rules applied to the church, not to the Sheltering Tree.
City Manager Alvin Jackson “has agreed that he and City staff will not engage in enforcement action with respect to the operation of the cold weather shelter on such nights until further direction can be provided by the Bunnell City Commission,” Vose wrote. The commission will formalize that directive at a special meeting on Nov. 4. “I have advised each member of the City Commission in the strongest terms that the City should comply with the United States Department of Justice’s directive in this regard.”
The Sheltering Tree’s board had not been informed of the decisions as of today: Le Tellier learned of them from a reporter.
With winter coming, Sheltering Tree advocates were talking about re-opening the shelter in defiance of the city’s ruling, but it didn’t gain favor. “There has been some discussions to just go ahead and do it and face the consequences,” Wines said. “I’m not going to speak for the Sheltering Tree, but the church decided we thought the best plan was to go ahead and let the process work. I have no problem with civil disobedience when it’s needed, but I just didn’t think it was going to be productive and I don’t think anybody else did either, so it’s good we waited it out.”
Open the cold weather shelter. How many night is it open? Two maybe three nights?
Carla Traister says
Up to 40 nights per year so far. Averaging 20.
Ashley Capitola says
Huge win for the Sheltering Tree, the only shelter in all of Flagler County! Shame on you Bunnell for causing those less fortunate to suffer. Practice what you preach. You reap what you sow.
Ashley, before you go throwing stones at the people of Bunnell, you first need to know that NO ONE had a problem with the Cold Weather Shelter even though they didn’t have the proper permit or were not up to code. The problem was the fact that after getting their free stuff from the church, then the church began allowing the ‘homeless’/transients to hang out on their property and once they got used to that, they began encroaching onto other people’s property. You couldn’t go by the church without being offered drugs or having someone wanting you to give them handouts. In fact, I have donated items for the homeless to the Sheltering Tree. At first it was good, but once they began loitering on the church property, they figured all property was fair game. I have grandchildren that for a while I couldn’t allow to play in my yard as the homeless wanted to sit there, etc. So please think and learn before you condemn a small town of callousness. I didn’t see anyone up in arms when they cleared the ‘homeless’/transients out from behind the PC library and want to relocate them 20 miles out in the country. Hmmm…..
Ashley Capitola says
The library wasn’t a shelter so your argument is totally invalid. They were at the church because it was a place they could safely turn to for help, assistance and care. Have a “blessed” day.
Stephen Naso says
Martin Collins says
As a member of the board of the Sheltering tree I am very pleased with this announcement.
I particularly want to thank our colleague John Letellier for all his diligent hard work on this issue
I personally felt from the outset that most people want to provide a safe and warm place for people who are homeless or who cannot afford to pay their utilities
This service is provided by 100% volunteers at no expense to our county or city governments on a church property. Our costs are covered by the generous donations of local people schools and businesses.
As a board member I would like to commit to the residents of Bunnell that we will make every effort to run the cold-weather shelter professionally and sensitively.
We will also work with the city and the police to ensure that any difficult personnel will be handled appropriately mindful of the concerns of local residents.
Apart from running our cold-weather shelter our key objective is to help people in distress because of short-term financial or other problems and thus prevent homelessness for many people.
There are many misunderstandings about homelessness which many people assume is caused by alcohol or drug abuse.
Well this is sometimes the cause of homelessness or near homelessness it is more often associated with issues such as divorce, mental or physical disability, job loss, or unexpected financial challenges.
Each week every Tuesday we try to address these issues for people in need .
Thank you to everybody who supported our cause
Joseph Golan says
Well said Martin, there is a need for this sheltering and all the work The Sheltering Tree does for the community. Let’s right this wrong.
Joe – The Bike Man
Wanda Dearth says
I want to congratulate the Sheltering Trees Board on it’s hard work and efforts to assist a group of people who mostly go ignored due to the lack of knowledge by most. The perception of the homeless is that they are abusers of alcohol or drugs, when the real issue is rising cost of housing, food and healthcare. They typical non professional job today will not support rent and rising cost to maintain a home. We have more Veterans living on the streets today than in any other time with over 11% of homeless population. 25% of our homeless have mental illness and have no means to appropriate healthcare. We have women with children running from an abusive relationship and they account for 37% of the homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Urban Housing (HUD) as of 2018 the homeless situation is once again growing. It’s very sad to me that a city could make a decision to close the only community shelter in a Church that served this underserved population. The city should strongly consider providing the Sheltering Tree with a piece of land then the Sheltering Tree could launch a Capital Campaign to seek funding To build a shelter. Problem Solved! City of Bunnell, be a part of the solution and redeem yourself.
Martin Collins says
Thanks for presenting facts about homelessness.
Who are we do judge people.
We can’t ignore vets,divorced women,mentally and physically disabled people.We should not ignore the chronically homeless.
After a few years working with the chronically homeless I realize that many of them had very normal lives for 40 or 50 years and then a tragic occurrence happened in their life.
In Flagler we have a shelter open for animals 365 days a year.It is air conditioned in summer and heated in winter.
Last year the shelter was open for humans for 19 nights when temperatures were below 40 degrees.
Shower facilities give people dignity and a shelter helps people on the coldest nights each year.
Let’s confront this issue based on facts.
Yes, Flagler has a shelter for animals 365 days a year. In a properly zoned location, and facility not located in a residential neighborhood..
John Le Tellier says
You are only partially correct. See the Church was in that location for over a hundred years, prior to the Land Development Code and designating that area as R1. Perhaps they should have put the R1 zone elsewhere. However, the fact is that the Church is one of the types of exemptions allowed to exist and operate and should be Grandfathered in and allowed to operate as it always had and allowed to minister according to the beliefs they have.
CB from PC says
Sounds like another of those good Samaritan concepts which in this age of drug and alcohol abusers, homeless lifestyle by choice, and failure to be responsible will further devalue the neighborhood.
I guess the good folks in JAX see fit to override the Civil Rights of those and their children who live in the area.
Plenty of $10-12 hour jobs around here for anyone who wants to comply with having legal ID, be sober, show up on time and do what is asked by the employer.
Oops, there I go with that responsibility BS again.
Edith Campins says
Your generalizations speak to you closed mind. Do you actually know any homeless? How does a homeles peson get to one of those jobs? How do they even know those jobs are available? Where can they clean up so they can present themselves and apply for a job? How does someone work on an empty stomach? How does a homeless person fill out an application? What address can they give? What phone number can a prospective employer call to say they’ve got the job? Where does a homeless person go to rest after working a full day? Where can they go to wash their clothes so they can be clean to work?
Thie issue isn’t responsibility, it is practicality.
John Le Telli says
So very well said.
Cold Weather 1, City of Bunnell 0. Kudos to Mr Le Tellier. The homeless many to no fault of their own, need a place to sleep indoors when 40 or below…actually they need to shower and use the bathroom that the church provides too and in reality should have a shelter to sleep no matter the temperature outdoors. Bunnell has homeless so do every other city in this county, so what gives them the right to shut down the only shelter in the County?. What are we suppose to do, push them out into the Atlantic? Sadly I see them all around us. Think same could happen to us at times maybe just one step away to become homeless too.
You are so very right. It can happen to anyone any time.
Buy the property next to the church, open a topless establishment, offer free beer on Sundays. You’ll be amazed how fast Bunnell’s zoning laws gain validity.
I side with the City of Bunnell.
Proper zoning for homeless shelter is the definition of smart growth. Having a homeless shelter in a residential neighborhood makes as much sense as building a children’s playground next to a sewer plant or papermill. The city should conduct occupancy inspections and fire safety inspections randomly of this shelter.
I think you may be on to something, I was thinking if we built homeless shelters near parks or schools we can then have the children help with feeding and cleaning for the homeless to help them learn to help your fellow humans. Would be such great life lessons for the youth.
Actually Dave, good idea, but do you know if some of them can even be within a thousand feet of a school?
John Le Tellier says
You seem to forget that the chuch was long before the residential neighborhood.
While the church may have been there, it wasn’t a homeless shelter when it opened
John Le Tellier says
It is not a homeless shelter. It has never been a homeless shelter and no one at The Sheltering Tree wants it to become one. Read the History page on the Church’s website. http://www.fumcbunnell.com/History.html. Especially this excerpt.
“The pastor and laity began a refocusing process in 2006 that gave them eyes to see what had been there all along: First UMC of Bunnell rediscovered its heart for the poor. Individuals were renewed in their walk with Jesus, and then were renewed as a community as they worked together to discern God’s vision for their future. They were given clarity with regard to their mission, and church members developed a strategic initiative that became their ministry focus for 2008-2009.
The church’s mission is to improve resources for the poor and homeless in Flagler County. The church has been a catalyst for change among other congregations in the county who are now working together to operate a cold-weather shelter. Following its first successful year operating the shelter, a vision team was established and they formed their own 501c3 not-for-profit corporation known as “The Sheltering Tree.””
Pardon me for not taking the church’s own website comments as proof. Religion isn’t hypocritical, the humans that wield it, are. Otherwise, there would be a “shelter” for the poor in every city in the county. There isn’t because, it attracts the homeless in quantity and therefor a continuous need. The city has a right to determine where the shelter is permitted, which will be determined by the investigation conducted by the Justice Department. Your best move is to negotiate with the city on a better location, and gain further public support of the community your shelter is located in rather than create further animosity.
Mr. Le Tellier,
Why aren’t your efforts expanded to Flagler Beach or Palm Coast? Plenty of retail space in the old Food Lion plaza. Oh, that would be to close to Lambert Avenue, or John Anderson wouldn’t it?
rich santomassino says
I am very pleased to hear that Bunnell has been put on notice regarding this issue. The United Methodist church has been in this location for over 100 years and it is part of their mission to “minister to the needs of the less fortunate”. We as a society cannot ignore (or eliminate) segments of our population because we do not approve of their lifestyle or appearance. The nazis thought this was the path to a “perfect” society. We must never forget how that notion played out.
No one said the sheltering tree shouldn’t or couldn’t help the homeless. I commend them for their efforts. With that being said, needs to be done in the appropriate setting, and location. Not a residential neighborhood.
one of the smallest, least fiscally robust cities in the county has the only homeless shelter, administered by those who don’t live in said city, funded by donations from coffers that also don’t live in said city.
Are the homeless in Palm Coast or Flagler Beach any less important before God? Why haven’t churches in these cities opened their doors as the Methodist church in bunnell? (Answer to that question is zoning & politics)
Unfortunately there is more to the issue, and it’s under the false flag of compassion and outreach.
because Flagler Beach and Palm Coast arent doing it, Bunnell shouldnt either?
Bunnell isn’t “doing it” people whom live outside of bunnell are running the shelter.. The actual residents should have a say on where that shelter is placed.
Gretchen Butler says
God bless the Sheltering Tree for all the efforts given and their BIG hearts to care for those in need. This is what we are called to do. Amen
Mike Cocchiola says
This is incredibly great news. It’s an interim solution for Flagler’s cold, hungry and homeless. Hopefully, the final decision will favor The Sheltering Tree and the First United Methodist Church to let them do the job on one else is doing.
Douglas Bentley says
We are delighted to hear the news about the homeless shelter remaining open for this winter. Many thanks to those brave souls of the sheltering tree who would not accept “no” for an answer.
Our family, along with many parishioners of Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church, feel blest to be able to assist those most in need on colder evenings with a hot meal, a cot to sleep on, and providing needed clothing and shoes. Turning our backs on those in distress does not display Christian values. It doesn’t display decent, basic human respect either.
Although for the short term, the shelter remains open, let’s pray and continue to support the sheltering tree’s efforts for a permanent “yes” in the near future. Blessings, Doug
Great News ! We love the homeless just as much as the homefull! We are all people that deserve help and love.
Ron Fell says
It is good to hear we are not turning our back on the less fortunate. We should be there to help them in their time of need. This is the Cbristian thing to do. I want to thank the board and all the volunteers for not giving up.
Matt. 25:42-45 Jesus states, when we take care of those who are hungry and in need of shelter we are also doing it to him.
Aisling E says
So glad the kind volunteers pushed back and have been the voice the homeless need. The sheltering tree is a wonderful resource to the community, taking it away from people in need would be devastating. A community should reflect kindness and helping others in need. Sheltering people in cold weather shouldn’t ever be a question. If you cant leave your pet dog outside in colder temperatures how can you possibly sleep at night knowing people from your community are suffering through the night. Kindness always leads to better things. Small things we often take for granted like a warm place to stay on a cold night, or knowing someone cares, is often the difference between moving forward and falling backwards. Helping your community will always result in goods thing for everyone. Great job to those who have pushed to do the right thing!
Very pleased to hear this. Justice prevails. Its easy to argue that this facility shouldnt be in a neighborhood or should have different amenities but we have to remember, this is the only one. Thats it. There is nothing else. For now this place should be protected and hopefully the county will start setting aside funding for an even better facility in a location that suits the people of the county too. We have a responsibility as people to take care of each other and we should always try to support an organization that aims to do that.
robert traister says
Shame on you Bunnell, thank you DOJ. How about the county fixing the sheriff’s office to help the homeless for all of Flagler County like the Free Health Clinic did.
John Le Tellier says
We are looking forward to constructive colaberation with the entire County of Flagler and its officials. Perhaps the $200,000 that Joe Mullins previously offered to Volusia County would be far better suited into fixing that facility to have various organizations move into that facility.