Helping in Crisis
Other homeless ministries closed during the COVID quarantine, exacerbating Tallahassee’s homelessness crisis. When the city asked City Walk to expand beyond serving pre-screened individuals and to provide general access to the homeless, City Walk agreed because of its Christian faith.
Initially, the city transported homeless persons to City Walk, contributed supplies to help it care for them, and discussed potential grant opportunities that could help offset City Walk’s significant costs. In all of these ways, the city induced City Walk to take on clients as a low barrier cold night shelter—a service that differs from its calling to provide supportive housing to lower-risk individuals.
While City Walk was assisting the city by providing temporary housing to help with the crisis, some local residents complained about homeless in the neighborhood. The city responded to this predictable development not only by abruptly ending its partnership with City Walk, but also by citing City Walk for operating its original supportive-housing ministry without an approved site plan.
No Good Deed
To ensure safety, City Walk screens its residents for substance abuse and mental health issues and provides supportive, transitional housing—a rules- and program-based environment that offers lodging, social services, and other resources to prepare its residents to transition to sustainable, full-time housing.
City Walk selected the best available location for its ministry—a standalone building bounded at the rear by a railroad track and at the front by a four-lane highway. And unfortunately, the city’s regulatory approach leaves City Walk with no other alternative site locations. The city prohibits City Walk from locating within industrial areas and requires proximity to a bus route, but simultaneously prohibits proximity to residential areas. This presents a Catch-22. If City Walk locates away from residential areas, it will not be close enough to a bus route. But if it locates close to residential areas, it will be told to move further away (where there are no bus routes).
And the city continues to blame City Walk for complaints attributable to the city’s own conduct in inducing City Walk to run a shelter for higher-risk individuals.
Despite the road blocks, in efforts to move forward with their ministry, City Walk retained an architect and an attorney and promptly submitted a detailed site plan application, but the City refused to approve it, citing neighborhood complaints that arose during the time that City Walk was serving the general homeless population at the city’s own request. In other words, the city used a problem that it created to deny City Walk the freedom to fulfill its religious calling and actually help the homeless. No good deed goes unpunished, and City Walk and the homeless are paying the price.
The city’s stubbornness doesn’t just harm City Walk; it also harms the broader community. The city was happy to drop off the homeless on City Walk’s doorstep during a crisis, but now opposes City Walk’s effort to actually reduce the number of homeless in the community. As the City would have it, City Walk’s residents would no longer be receiving critical services (or would receive them at taxpayer expense) and would be forced back out into the streets. City Walk cannot accept that injustice and has chosen to remain open. Consequently, it faces fines.
City Walk is diligently appealing the site-plan denial and fines through the authorized appeal process. They cannot simply close the facility and turn their residents out on the streets. That would result in a public health crisis and a humanitarian catastrophe.
First Liberty Action
In July 2021, First Liberty Institute and attorneys with Dudley, Sellers, Healing & Heath filed a brief on behalf of City Walk challenging the city’s decision to wrongfully disapprove a site plan and fine City Walk for operating its ministry after the disapproval. The brief was filed in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in and for Leon County, Florida.
“After inducing City Walk to shelter the general homeless population during the city’s time of need, the city is now denying City Walk the freedom to resume its lower-risk supportive-housing ministry,” said Jordan Pratt, Counsel for First Liberty Institute, who represents City Walk. “City Walk wants to help decrease homelessness—a goal of any well-functioning local government—while the city now seems more interested in forcing the ministry out of the city. It is unfortunate that the city is violating City Walk’s religious liberty rights instead of supporting its effort to solve the crisis of homelessness that the city is facing.”