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Palm Coast Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2019 2 months ago

At Bunnell City Commission meeting, Sheltering Tree leaders vow to fight closure

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A Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board decision ordered the church to stop serving as a cold weather shelter.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

The leadership of the Sheltering Tree, the cold-weather shelter based out of the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell, plans to fight the city zoning board’s 3-0 decision to shut down the shelter.

The Sheltering Tree had applied for a special exception to allow the shelter to operate. It has been open every night that the temperature reaches 40 degrees or below. Last year, that was 19 nights. Sheltering Tree leaders said they had believed that the church, under a former pastor, had secured the city’s formal permission to operate, but it turned out that it had not.

"When I read the Bible, it says in Proverbs 31-8 and 9, 'Speak up those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up, and judge fairly. Defend the rights of the poor and the needy.' That’s our job. You folks in authority should have that as a principle to do business."

JAMES BELLINO, pastor of the Church on the Rock, on North State Street in Bunnell

“We are not giving up after the recent decision of the three-member zoning board two weeks ago,” Susan Bickings, chairman of the Sheltering Tree’s board, told the Bunnell City Commission at its meeting June 10.

The commission was not scheduled to make any decision on the Sheltering Tree at the meeting, and, because the topic might come before the commission in the future as a quasi-judicial matter, commissioners did not comment on it during the meeting.

Bickings listed two grounds for an appeal: a church-state, First Amendment-based appeal against the city for interfering with the church’s ministry. Secondly, she said, one of the planning board members is a current trustee of the church and a former member of its board of trustees, and should have recused himself: That would have left just two members, and therefore no quorum for the   vote.

The Sheltering Tree helps prevent homelessness, Bickings said, by helping people pay utilities, rent and security deposits.

But, she added, “People who have no heat, or people who live in cars, can come there and sleep in the church fellowship chapel. The police and the Sheriff’s Office have brought people in at night when it’s cold.”

Shelter volunteers, addressing concerns that the Sheltering Tree has harbored drug addicts and sex offenders, said those individuals are trespassed from the church.

But, as they had at the planning board hearing,  several people spoke in opposition to the Sheltering Tree, saying they believed it was attracting more homeless people to the area and that the conduct of the homeless has affected area businesses, and residents’ ability to feel safe in the community. 

One woman, a Bunnell resident, said she was concerned about her grandchildren’s safety. She said she was once accosted in her vehicle by a homeless man directly in front of the church, and called police. Another man passed out in her ditch, a six-pack of beer nearby, and then was drunk and belligerent with her, she said.

“I ran him off with a gun,” she said. “It is a true safety issue for us.”

The owner of a local hair salon said panhandlers have been approaching her customers and setting up tents behind the business. Stephen Woodin, a rental property owner, said he leased a woman a house on Church Street, and she left three and a half months into a two-year lease because homeless people kept entering the property and using her outdoor washer and dryer.

The Rev. James Bellino, pastor of the Church on the Rock, on U.S. 1, appealed to commissioners’ sense of responsibility for the poor.

“I’m really disappointed in the city of Bunnell,” he said. “I emailed our mayor, Mayor Robinson — you said we’re going follow the lead of the county. And I’m disappointed, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re forcing them out of the area; you’re not solving an issue. ... When I read the Bible, it says in Proverbs 31-8 and 9, ‘Speak up those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up, and judge fairly. Defend the rights of the poor and the needy.’ That’s our job. You folks in authority should have that as a principle to do business.”

Bellino said that, as a small business owner himself, he values business. But he warned people against having a not-in-my-backyard attitude about the homeless.

“Folks, we’re always going have the poor with us,” he said. “We have to defend the poor. Because our society’s only as good as its weakest link. ... People are what we build a community upon, and helping people is what government’s supposed to do.”

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