The city will comply with a Department of Justice directive to allow the shelter to operate as the department investigates the city.
The Bunnell City Commission voted unanimously and with little discussion Nov. 4 to comply with a Department of Justice directive that ordered the city to let the cold weather shelter known as The Sheltering Tree continue to operate while the DOJ investigates whether the city violated federal law by shutting it down.
The shelter operates only when the weather drops to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and was open 19 nights last year. The Justice Department will be investigating whether Bunnell violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it denied the church a special exception that would have allowed for the operation of the shelter.
"The directive for the federal government has been approved; we will honor that," Mayor Catherine Robinson said after the vote. "Meanwhile, we will work to have a better solution than 19 nights, because the homeless deserve better than that: We deserve to have permanent solutions to help them."
The meeting drew a handful of few supporters of the cold weather shelter and the United Methodist Church of Bunnell, from which The Sheltering Tree operates. County Administrator Jerry Cameron also attended, calling the matter "a critical issue for the entire county."
"It has fallen on you at this particular time to have to address an aspect of homelessness," he said to the Bunnell commissioners during the meeting's public comment period. "The community needs to realize and own the countywide problem of homelessness — even the regionwide problem of the homeless situation. And I'm just here tonight to tell you that we support you in any way that we can. We will continue to work on a permanent solution that has a countywide ownership, that I am led to believe that the other municipalities are willing to step up and share some of the burden to keep this from just being Bunnell's problem. It extends far beyond the cold weather shelter. The homeless problem has to be addressed on a systemic basis, and as soon as I can get some of these other fires put out, I intend to devote a considerable amount of energy to it."
"You don't know how it warms my heart, and I could almost cry right now, over what you just stood there and said," Robinson replied. "Because I've been talking about the homeless problem — and doing something globally for the homeless, not just little bits and pieces — since 2011. And this is the first time that I've seen someone from the county come and say it's a county problem and we're going work on it on a county level and we're going do more than 19 nights open a shelter — because what about the other 246? So, thank you for that — thank you so much — and we will do what we can to help facilitate that process."
Martin Collins, vice chairman of the Sheltering Tree's board, also attended and told commissioners that The Sheltering Tree is working to be accommodating to the local community.
"We dearly want to work with the city on any issues that come up or any concerns that you have," Collins said. He gave an example of an adjustment The Sheltering Tree has already made in order to help allay community concerns — changing food pantry operations so that people waiting for help wouldn't crowd the area around the church on Wednesday mornings.
"Being sensitive to that, we moved that operation to Tuesday and rather than people waiting to meet us, now we bring them into the courtyard to reduce visibility of people," Collins said, "because we know that people have concerns about their children, about the appearance of the neighborhood, and that one or two bad apples can make a very bad impression."
People who are loitering will be told to move on, he said, "and we will respect the citizens and the council of the city."
"We know that you have to consider the thoughts and concerns of your people, and that everybody is doing their best to address the issue," Collins said. "We hope that somewhere in the middle we can find a compromise that works for all of us, regardless of the outcome of the DOJ."
View previous coverage of this story at https://www.palmcoastobserver.com/article/us-dept-of-justice-investigating-bunnell-tells-city-to-keep-sheltering-tree-open-in-the-meantime.