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Palm Coast Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2019 3 months ago

City ratifies decision to close cold weather shelter; church vows to fight

The commission voted unanimously to reject the shelter's appeal.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Bunnell’s city government has rejected the local cold weather shelter’s appeal of the city’s decision to order it to close. But the fight is not over: The Sheltering Tree, based at the First United Methodist Church in Bunnell, is preparing for possible legal action.

“The City Commission can always rescind anything that they do,” First United Methodist Church of Bunnell pastor the Rev. Terry Wines told supporters after the July 8 commission meeting at which the commission rejected the shelter’s request to remain open. “We’ll take the next step, and we’ll be respectful and loving and go from there.”

The Sheltering Tree has come before city boards multiple times this year, each time drawing a crowd of supporters — mostly volunteers, most of them from Palm Coast and Flagler Beach — and opponents, most of whom have been Bunnell residents who say the church attracts homeless people and nuisance behavior like panhandling.

It was the city’s Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board that first, on May 31, ordered the cold weather shelter to cease operations. 

The shelter’s leadership had approached the city after the shelter became aware that it did not have the proper authority to operate: Because the church sits in residential zoning, the shelter needed a special exception to operator there. The Sheltering Tree’s board had thought that had been secured already, but in fact it had not, so the Sheltering Tree applied for the exception.

“We’ll take the next step, and we’ll be respectful and loving and go from there.”

— TERRY WINES, pastor, First United Methodist Church of Bunnell

The Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board denied that request after a stream of residents spoke during the meeting’s public comment period, saying that homeless people who were drawn to the area by the church have been begging, doing drugs, lighting fires on vacant lots, and scaring away businesses’ customers.

The Sheltering Tree’s supporters spoke at a commission meeting June 10 and formally appealed the PZA Board’s decision on June 24 before the City Commission, but was again met with rejection after residents told city officials that the shelter had been attracting homeless people who have affected locals’ quality of life.

Sheltering Tree volunteers countered that the homeless people they serve are locals who would be there whether the shelter provides aid or not — and that, since the Sheltering Tree only operates when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, as it did just 19 times last year, it isn’t open frequently enough to be drawing a large homeless population to the area anyhow.

But the commission, at its June 24 meeting, not only rejected the church’s appeal of the PZA Board’s order that the shelter close, but went further, adding restrictions on the church’s application to construct new showers and laundry facilities. The PZA Board had approved those upgrades, which church staff said were needed to host visiting disaster relief teams. But the commission feared they’d be used to aid the homeless, not disaster volunteers. The commission’s decision was unanimous.

Nothing much had changed in the two sides’ positions between that meeting and the one on July 8: Again, resident after resident said the Sheltering Tree was attracting people who committed nuisance crime. Again, volunteer after volunteer said the Sheltering Tree is providing a needed service to people already in the community.

Martin Collins, a board member of the shelter, sought to highlight how good people can find themselves in need of the shelter’s services.

“These people could be our brothers or sisters; it could be you or me,” he said. “In January, a grandma in her late 60s came into the shelter at night. She had fled domestic violence. She was sleeping in her car, helpless and alone … She was so thankful for that warm night.”

Some people who need the shelter are veterans, he said.

“They come back from war confused, distressed and needing help. ... I hope you do not decide to take away that little basic thing that we provide. … I wish the city of Bunnell, its citizens ... success with Bunnell’s development. But surely the city can develop and we can provide shelter at the same time.”

Roberta Nelson, a Bunnell resident, said the shelter’s volunteer staff had failed to think ahead and coordinate with efforts to build a homeless shelter in Volusia County.

“Maybe if some accountability had been there, it would be different,” Nelson said. “Apparently, nobody thought of the future at all; they figured they’d just sit here and do the same thing year after year.”

The commission voted unanimously to reject the shelter’s appeal and confirm the PZA Board’s order requiring it to cease operations.

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