Excerpted from The Daytona Beach News-Journal by Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
Four months before First Step Shelter is slated to open, decisions about who can stay there and what the rules will be once they’re welcomed inside as residents are still a work in progress.
DAYTONA BEACH — Four weeks ago, City Commissioner Quanita May called for the First Step Shelter Board to be dissolved and the city to take over. That failed suggestion seemed to only deepen the resolve of the seven shelter board members to dig in and fight for the success of the homeless refuge under construction on city land.
Last week, May said she wanted one or two of the board members to voluntarily resign to make room for a woman or two on the all-male board. Board members had already been talking about expanding their group, and at Monday’s First Step Shelter Board meeting member Mike Panaggio said he’s talked to “two very high-level” women who are interested in joining the board.
Panaggio didn’t say who the women are but added that when the names are revealed “you’ll know who they are.” As for May’s request that a few board members step down, that got zero discussion at Monday’s meeting.
With the shelter for adults aiming to open in about four months, the board spent its more than two-hour meeting discussing the shelter’s finances, deciding to look for a new executive director who could begin Oct. 1 and hashing out some of the policies and procedures that will dictate how the facility is run.
Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which will be running the shelter when it opens, has been working on policies and procedures for the facility since the beginning of the year. The 63-page draft that was updated May 17 covers everything from the limited transportation options for shelter residents to when and where they can smoke on the site five miles west of Interstate 95.
It was the second page of the document, which focuses on admission criteria, that stunned Volusia County Judge Belle Schumann.
Schumann, who has dealt with the homeless in her courtroom for years and has been heavily involved in the shelter project since 2012, was aghast that the policy doesn’t say only men and women in Volusia County will be eligible to stay there and get help. There is no geographic restriction.
“I think that’s a recipe for disaster,” Schumann told shelter board members Monday.
The main limitations listed are that a person must be at least 18 years old, not have children with them, and not need assistance getting in and out of bed and taking care of bathroom and hygiene needs. The proposed policy also says shelter residents would have to pass a background check looking for open warrants, agree to alcohol and drug tests, and sign off on a 20-point resident agreement that addresses things like the amount of time they can stay at the shelter.
It’s “an open invitation to virtually anyone, anywhere,” Schumann wrote in a three-page statement she put together for Monday’s meeting. “This policy is not financially sustainable. The primary funding source now is taxpayer dollars. Space and resources are limited. Priority for admission must favor entities providing funding.”
The proposed shelter policy says walk-ins will be accepted, although only those who agree to work with a case manager on stabilizing their lives and adhere to a multitude of rules will be allowed to stay inside the shelter. Schumann suggests that at least for the first 90 days, First Step limit admission to people referred by law enforcement and their homeless outreach teams, as well as referrals from Halifax Hospital and local governmental agencies that contribute funding to the shelter.
“Why would cities contribute operations money in the future if the same service is provided to anyone, anywhere for free?” she said in her statement.
The judge noted that “even broader statements” about shelter eligibility are made on the First Step website.
The home page of firststepshelter.org includes the following passage: “If you are a single homeless adult, we will soon be able to help you. There are no tests or barriers for entry. You will be welcomed in. The only requirement is your need of a safe, positive place. Please come as you are, and we will help you get on the right track.”
The top of the firststepshelter.org homepage says: “COME AS YOU ARE.” Schumann contends that “does not mean anyone appearing at the door must be admitted.”
She said “come as you are” refers to considering taking in people who show up under the influence or alcohol or drugs, or who would not be admitted to other shelters because of their screening criteria.
“Low barrier does not mean no barrier,” Schumann said.
Schumann said it’s best to at least start with the local homeless people already crossing paths with law enforcement, the courts and healthcare providers.
“By diverting the frequent users of public services, the most savings of taxpayer funding are achieved,” Schumann argued.
The shelter was originally planning to have 100 beds, but with First Step’s cash down more than $50,000 since last year, board members have been talking about shrinking down to 40 or 50 beds, at least to start. Those beds could fill quickly, according to a six-month study that determined the Volusia County Branch Jail will be sending about 60 people per month to the shelter.
Schumann said the jail will divert people who have been charged with things such as trespassing, panhandling and having an open container of alcohol. But the only freed inmates who would be allowed into the shelter would be those who agreed to work with shelter staff on getting off the streets and following rules that cover everything from cleaning assignments to curfews.
Board member Dwight Selby said it might be best to make that adherence to shelter rules a condition of release for those inmates who want to come to First Step.
“Otherwise they’re getting a free pass,” said Selby, an Ormond Beach city commissioner.
Schumann said the homeless people revolving in and out of jail are many of the same people who churches, and volunteers would be driving to the shelter. Nonetheless, board member Bill Hall said he wants to reserve some shelter beds for people who don’t have criminal issues.
Police Chief Craig Capri told the board he started a homeless outreach team about nine months ago that gives homeless people bus passes to travel to family members who can help and assists them with securing government benefits that can help get them off the streets.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” the chief said.
First Step Shelter will include an outdoor area for homeless people who don’t want to comply with shelter rules, who have been brought there in lieu of jail after being accused of a minor crime such as sleeping in a park at night, or who are waiting for a spot to open up inside the shelter. Schumann hopes people in that outdoor area will be allowed to stay there 24 hours a day, not just at night.
She said if homeless people staying in the outdoor area are told to leave every morning and wind up spending their days in public places, “the primary object of this shelter will not be fulfilled.” Even worse, she said, First Step Shelter could become “a magnet that exacerbates the homeless problem in Volusia County.”
If the shelter is overrun with homeless people, fundraising could be severely hampered and the reputations of board members could sink, Schumann said.
“You have one chance to make a first impression,” she said.