Bunnell has ordered the First United Methodist Church of Bunnell to shut down the cold weather shelter, called The Sheltering Tree, that has operated from the church grounds for about 11 years.
The decision follows a series of contentious public discussions about how to handle homelessness: The county recently contended with a number of complaints about a large homeless camp behind the library — it's now been cleared for the construction of a future Sheriff's Office facility — and, late last year, Bunnell's City Commission adopted an ordinance banning panhandling.
The church had requested a special exception to expand by adding new, ADA-compliant bathrooms, as well as showers and laundry facilities that would have been available for homeless people on the days that the cold weather shelter is open, and to disaster relief staying at the church during declared emergencies.
It had also, separately, requested that the city provide a special exception allowing the operation of the cold weather shelter on the church property, which is in a residential neighborhood. Church leaders believed that the church had, before the arrival of the church's current pastor, obtained such an exception, but later discovered that it had not, they said.
Bunnell Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board members at a May 31 meeting denied the church's request to operate the cold weather shelter. They approved the request for new bathrooms and showers, but made the approval contingent on the church updating its fire protection system, and specifically stated that the new additions are not to be used for the homeless.
The board members' decision followed a number of comments from community members who said they thought the church had been attracting homeless people to the neighborhood — and, with them, crimes like littering, public urination, drug use and prostitution.
Pastor Terry Wines and Sheltering Tree Board Chairman Sue Bickings said the Sheltering Tree, which is a 501c3 nonprofit, is trying to follow Jesus Christ's example by ministering to the poor, and noted that it's always operated in the open and in coordination with a number of government agencies.
"We’re a church … and churches in America, some of them, try to help people, because that’s what Jesus would like us to do," she said, adding that the shelter operated on 19 nights last year, opening when the weather dropped below 40 degrees. "We notify EMS when we’re open, we notify (Flagler County Emergency Services Chief) Jonathan Lord, we call the county, we notify the sheriff, human services. ... Everybody should know — and maybe you guys should know — we’ve been there for 11 years. So I don’t know what's changed."
She acknowledged that there have been some problems in the past. But, she said, things are better, and the Sheltering Tree now has about 150 volunteers.
"People like us. They don’t like it in Bunnell because it’s NIMBY, guys," she said. "I get NIMBY. But it got started there by a church and a church is designed by Jesus Christ to help people."
And removing the Sheltering Tree, she said, won't move the homeless out of Bunnell.
But city staff entered the meeting opposed to the cold weather shelter: Rodney Lucas, Bunnell's Community and Economic Development Director, told the church that residential zoning simply wasn't the right place to shelter the homeless, and cited what he called a "lack of control" by the facility over the homeless service users.
"The city has received many calls and I have one letter of opposition in here for your review," he said. "The city has had to respond to several complaints regarding the clients of the church. There’s a concern about the church housing sex offenders, especially with the proposed development of a new elementary school across the street."
Residents gave examples.
One, Lyn Lafferty, owns property in the area, she said, including the plot of land slated to become a Montessori elementary school across from the church.
"I’ve personally witnessed public intoxication, fighting, people sleeping on my property and in my buildings, drug dealers, women getting into cars with men over and over throughout the day," she said. "Someone actually burned a fire in one of my buildings. I’ve seen used condoms and drug paraphernalia on my porches and inside of a portable potty used by the workers I’ve hired. There’s been feces and jars of urine on my porch. The neighbors there are afraid to come onto their porch and sit. There’s one neighbor, she’s scared to feed her cats."
She recalled being approached by homeless people and asked for money, food, and, in one case, a sexual favor.
When the weather's warmer — and the cold weather shelter is closed — that activity lessens, she said.
"I think that the people involved in this have the best intentions, but I don’t believe that this location is the most suitable, and I do not feel that it is helping people out of homelessness due to a lack of a full spectrum of services," she said.
One man said he had a business in the area and has had problems with homeless people "using the restroom in public, drunk, passed out, beer cans everywhere, while they sit there playing on their iPhones. ... I have nothing against employees coming in for emergencies, but as far as the homeless, we’re done with them. We’ve had enough of them. It’s ridiculous," he said.
Others spoke similarly, some accusing the shelter of enabling criminal behavior.
County Commissioner Joe Mullins also spoke during the meeting's public comment period.
"We don’t want to stop churches from doing good deeds, but at the end of the day, structure needs to come and there needs to be rules and regulations how to address this, because we’re just on the verge of something bad happening," Mullins said.
He noted that deputies had found a violent sex offender in the homeless camp behind the county library in Palm Coast. And, he said, "I disagree that (homeless) people haven't moved from Palm Coast to Bunnell. I have encountered and talked to those people. ... Now, there’s good and bad mixed in with them, but without certified and trained medical counselors, we’re not doing any good with them; were just feeding them, we’re putting them back out."
Board members asked Police Chief Tom Foster about his impressions. Foster said there have been more homeless people in the area over the past two years, and that they're being bussed to the church on Wednesdays to attend its food pantry.
"Homelessness is a societal problem; it’s not against the law," Foster said. "If they commit a crime, then we get involved." He noted that there have been some success stories involving homeless people at the Sheltering Tree, including one man who died and was revived by a police officer using CPR, and is now in recovery. "However, as a law enforcement officer, I have to make sure my constituents can go out at night, can walk their dogs, can ride their bicycles," he said.
The church's pastor, the Rev. Terry Wines, said the church has acknowledged mistakes of the past.
"I live in that neighborhood. I walk that neighborhood. My wife walks that neighborhood," he said. "So one of the things we’re concerned about is to trying to improve the neighborhood. ... And I cannot say that I don’t feel the fear of my neighbors. I understand their fear. I do. And I wish I could take away their fear, but I can’t. But all we are trying to do in this little church — which, I wish we could afford to buy a new piece of property, but we can’t — we’re there, and all we’re trying to do is share the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just by word but by deed."
The Sheltering Tree plans to appeal the board's decision.