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City is punishing homeless ministry for helping during a crisis

August 15, 2021

By Jordan Pratt, Senior Counsel

As COVID ravaged the nation, far too many Americans became homeless. Statistically, there is little doubt homelessness increased last year. Some analysts believe it was even worse than the numbers show.

The city of Tallahassee was no different, facing a pandemic-induced homelessness crisis during winter while many shelters closed their doors.

But one ministry — City Walk Urban Mission — stayed open. And when Tallahassee officials asked City Walk to expand beyond serving pre-screened individuals to providing general access to the homeless, City Walk agreed because of its Christian faith.

To be clear, this city-encouraged shelter differed from City Walk’s chosen ministry. Previously City Walk provided supportive, transitional housing — a rules-based full-time program offering lodging, social services and employment to prepare its residents for sustainable, permanent housing. To ensure success and safety, the ministry then employed — and now again employs — strict zero-tolerance rules. It also then screened and once again now screens its residents for substance abuse and mental health issues, and ensures they scrupulously adhere to treatment requirements.

But when the city asked City Walk to put its ministry plans on hold to run an emergency low barrier shelter during the coldest months of the year, City Walk answered the call.

City Walk leased a vacant building and made repairs so it could fill the city’s need. Initially, the city was an enthusiastic partner, granting temporary approval to operate a shelter, and providing 100 cots and two outdoor showers. The city also transported homeless persons to City Walk and discussed potential grant opportunities that could offset City Walk’s mounting costs.

But everything changed when a few local residents complained about an increase of the homeless in the area.

Shockingly, the city responded not only by abruptly ending its partnership with City Walk, but also by refusing to approve a site plan for City Walk’s original supportive-housing ministry. The city even turned down City Walk’s invitation to mediate a solution.

Even so, local police remain undeterred by City Hall politics and continue transporting needy persons to City Walk. City officials may no longer appreciate City Walk, but the city’s own police officers recognize its no-nonsense approach and vocal passion for serving society’s most downtrodden are precisely what’s needed to solve Tallahassee’s homelessness crisis.

Meanwhile, City Hall’s sudden 180 has put City Walk in an untenable position. City Walk selected the best available location for its ministry — a standalone building in a multi-use district that permits supportive housing. The building is bounded at the rear by an active railroad, at the front by a busy four-lane highway, and at the sides by a large vacant lot and an office building.

City Walk’s options are limited because the city’s zoning rules prevent it from locating within industrial areas and require proximity to a bus route, but the city simultaneously objects to its proximity to residential areas — even though the code allows supportive housing near, and even within, residential areas.

This presents a Catch-22. If City Walk locates away from residential areas, it will not be close enough to a code-required bus route. But if it locates close to residential areas, it will be told to move farther away (where there are no bus routes).

Despite the roadblocks, City Walk — back to its original mission parameters — retained an architect and promptly submitted a detailed site plan application. But the city rejected it, citing the same neighborhood complaints that arose when City Walk was serving the general homeless population at the city’s own request. In other words, the city used a situation 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 its vulnerable residents are paying the price.

City Walk is diligently pursuing its site plan application through the authorized appeal process. It cannot simply close the facility and turn its residents out onto the streets, although that is what Tallahassee is trying to force it to do. Abandoning City Walk’s residents would violate its deeply held religious belief that it must help the outcast and downtrodden of society.

Last month, attorneys for City Walk filed a brief in state Circuit Court challenging the city’s decision to wrongfully disapprove a site plan and fine City Walk for continuing to operate its ministry.

This litigation should not be necessary, as the city’s own past actions demonstrate. During the city’s time of need, the city induced City Walk to open an emergency shelter for the general homeless population. But now the city is denying City Walk the freedom to pursue its lower risk, chosen ministry: supportive housing for those who submit to a rigorous treatment and employment program.

City Walk’s faith compels it to help decrease homelessness — a goal of any well-functioning local government. It is unfortunate the city is trying to shut down City Walk’s vital ministry instead of supporting its effective effort to solve Tallahassee’s homelessness crisis.

Note: This article was first published on Tallahassee Democrat and is re-published here with permission. The article presents the main points of an op-ed published in Tallahassee Democrat . This work was authored by Jordan Pratt. The full article can be found on the Tallahassee Democrat website, here.

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