Blog Archives

OPINION: City May Try to Restrict Churches from Serving the Poor

As many of you know, issues around providing care to homeless people in our community are being brought constantly to the city commission. St. Francis House, our local homeless shelter, received flack for years about the “undesirables” that were attracted downtown because they were offered help there. Restrictions were enforced, and SFH began limiting the number of people who were served.  Next, a “one-stop center” was proposed and approved as a way to care for those restricted from SFH, but no one wanted the center near them, and it took a while to find a place (and now to get funding). Churches stepped up to fill the gap (and respond to their calling to be “good news to the poor”) by opening their doors to people in need – offering friendship, food, and sometimes shelter.  And now that is being threatened.  

Currently on the agenda for the city commission is discussion on how to limit, and sometimes restrict, churches from offering food and shelter to the poor and/or homeless. Donna Lawson, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network – an organization that assists churches in offering food and temporary housing to homeless families – has attended recent commission meetings and gives a synopsis in a letter she wrote (below). She also offers a very compelling analysis of the attitude that allows this to happen (in bold).   

Hello everyone –

The Community Development Committee meeting went quite badly last night. It is obvious that City Staff and Commissioners are intent upon placing additional restrictions on congregations, both as regards to lot size as well as feeding hungry persons and sheltering homeless persons. The meeting ended without Commissioners Henry, Lowe and Donovan voting on all issues raised. Indeed, after four hours of meeting, we didn’t even finish the discussion about shelter provision, nor did we discuss the issue of feeding hungry persons. Here are notes on the discussions, action taken, and direction City Staff are moving Commissioners toward.

1. Lot Size – Commissioners tentatively settled on the following required lot sizes for congregations building in RSF districts:

Building capacity of 100 – 1.0 acre
Building capacity of 150 – 1.5 acres
Building capacity of 200 – 2.0 acres
Building capacity of 250 – 2.5 acres
Increasing by .5 acres for every 50 persons

This is a requirement for larger lot size than is currently in Code. It should be noted that, according to City Staff data, there are currently 21 congregations in the City on lot sizes smaller than 1 acre. All but three of these are in Single Family Districts. All but six of these are on the East side of town. Restrictions as envisioned by Commissioners at this meeting will hurt the ability of small congregations wishing to develop, e.g., those with memberships of less than 100. Though City staff repeatedly assured the audience that the new restrictions would not hurt existing congregations in their ability to renovate their current buildings, there was disagreement among City staff about the process and whether or not congregations would be forced to obtain special permissions/permits for certain renovations.

2. Sheltering Homeless Persons – (Except where noted, sheltering restrictions apply across the City, not just in RSF Districts.) Discussion got bogged down, as Commissioners tried to anticipate all possible problems and issues that could arise and that could be legislated. It appears that Commissioners may place congregations sheltering on a temporary basis – such as IHN-participating congregations – in a separate category than congregations wishing to shelter on a more permanent basis. However discussion ended for the night with no vote on the issues. Commissioners did begin discussing creating additional restrictions for congregations wishing to house people on a “permanent” basis. For example, they discussed the possibility of allowing congregations sheltering on a permanent basis to shelter only 3 families or 3 unrelated persons, rather than the maximum of twenty people currently allowed in the code. City staff recommended that restrictions on hours of operation be removed for congregation-based shelter activities. They also removed from their recommendations the restriction for “compatability with the neighborhood in RSF districts,” because they are recommending to Commissioners that all sheltering taking place inside (i.e., congregations could not allow persons to sleep in tents on congregation property).There was no discussion of the requirement that congregations obtain a permit for sheltering homeless persons. Commissioner Donovan has requested that this issue be addressed before the Ordinance is returned to the Commission.

3. Food Distribution to the Needy – (Except where noted, restrictions on food distribution apply across the City, not just in RSF Districts.) Commissioners did not yet discuss this issue. Back-up documentation provided indicates that City staff have revised their recommendations and are now recommending that hours of operation be restricted to 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Similar to shelter activities, if food distribution takes place indoors there would be no “compatability requirements” in RSF districts. If food distribution takes place outdoors, there would be compatability requirements in RSF districts.Staff have not re-addressed the following issues: limit of 20 meals served/day, quarter-mile separation between congregations providing food, no-feed zone around the University. Back-up documentation indicates that they want time to survey other communities.What was most discouraging about the meeting was its tenor. The meeting began with the discussion of lot size for congregations, which only affects Residential Single Family Districts. Numerous members of several neighborhood groups were present at the CDC meeting to argue in support of restrictions. There seemed to be general consensus – including among Commissioners – that the presence of a congregation in a neighborhood portends problems due to increased traffic, traffic throughout the day as a congregation grows, lighting, and so on. There was also the insinuation from the audience that congregations will withhold information or give false information about congregation size or plans for growth in order to worm their way into a neighborhood or to obtain permits, etc. There was no disavowal of this statement by Commissioners.

Additionally, as the discussion moved toward sheltering and feeding, the discussion shifted to the effect of housing “those people” in a church, with statements that homeless persons come with so many problems that there must laws in place to protect congregations from themselves or the community from congregation efforts to help too many homeless persons at one time.I was ashamed of my community last night, at least the members who think they can and should legislate against all “possible potential problems” that might occur when people of faith show compassion to the poor and needy among us. I brought up the fact that we allow laws already on the books to regulate behavior such as that which occurs downtown each weekend.

Though police officers report that there are shootings and stabbings every weekend in downtown Gainesville, related to the bar activity, we do not shut down bars on weekends to prevent people from shooting or stabbing each other. Additionally, bars and restaurants downtown are allowed to serve hundreds of people, and to serve until late into the evening. Yet in an attempt to prevent whatever behavior they believe will be exhibited at churches by hungry and homeless persons, Commissioners and City staff want to allow only a very few of each to be served by congregations. Though a bar can serve 100 people up until 2:0 0 a.m., the church next door can provide food to only 20 hungry people and must stop doing so by 8:00 p.m. Though several bars in the same block can serve 100 people each, two churches next door to each other cannot both feed hungry people. There’s something really, really wrong with this. Personally I think the issue is money – people who patronize bars and restaurants spend money; people who own bars and restaurants make money. Hungry and homeless people do not have money and therefore do not have influence.

I urge all of you to attend the next meeting of the Community Development Committee. It will be held next Thursday, March 6th, at 6:00 p.m., in room 17 City Hall. Commissioners plan to wrap up their discussion of this issue so they may send the Ordinance back to the City Commission as soon as possible. At the meeting last night, neighborhood defenders outnumbered the few members of congregations who were present to argue for the right – and responsibility – of congregations to engage in ministries without City-imposed constraints. I believe that it is important for congregation members and pastors to speak up, to demonstrate that this is our community as well, and we wish to help our needy brothers and sisters without restriction by unnecessary City rules.
I will be sending out additional information regarding the congregational feeding and sheltering that currently exists – without problems reported – within the next few days. If you wish to express your thoughts to Commissioners via e-mail as well as in attendance at the next meeting, I have included Commissioner e-mail addresses below.
(Craig Lowwe),
(Rick Bryant),
(Pegeen Hanrahan),
(Scherwin Henry),
(Comm Jack Donovan),
(Jeanna Mastrodicasa),
(Ed Braddy),

Donna Watson Lawson
Executive Director
Interfaith Hospitality Network
of Greater Gainesville
P.O. Box 880
Gainesville, FL 32602
352-378-2720 fax