Care for homeless debated by city

Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:54 a.m.

Enacted years ago and long unenforced, Gainesville's regulations on homeless shelters and soup kitchens run by churches in residential neighborhoods or near the University of Florida campus sparked long debate during a Monday night City Commission special meeting.

The city's current law, if enforced, would cap both the number of meals that soup kitchens run by religious institutions in the city's single-family residential zoning districts may serve each day at 20 and also limit the number of people they may house at a shelter to 20.

Religious institutions operating shelters or soup kitchens must be at least a quarter-mile apart and at least 2,000 feet from the UF campus. City Attorney Marion Radson said previous city commissioners passed the regulations in order to disburse services for the homeless so they do not put too much of a burden on one area of the city. Radson said that, in 1993, the city code was also amended to require that churches obtain a permit for a soup kitchen or homeless shelter and the law has been widely ignored by local religious organizations.

"I've been told that no one has ever applied for one," Radson said.

The city also has chosen not to enforce the regulations.

"We have laws on the books that we are not enforcing and I think it is obvious why they are not being enforced," said Commissioner Scherwin Henry. "We want the (homeless and needy) populations to be served."

City officials have spent nearly two years reviewing the regulations for potential changes, and the debate at the City Commission meeting stretched late into the night Monday.

Some residents of downtown neighborhoods and the area north of the UF campus said too many of the service providers for the homeless are clustered in those areas and, according to them, that has led to an increase in transient foot traffic, break-ins and panhandling. Dan Harmeling , who lives in a downtown area, argued that many of the people calling for the repeal of the city's regulations do not live in the neighborhoods affected.

"We have all these people from all these areas telling us downtown what to do," Harmeling said.

The Rev. John Gillespie of St. Augustine Catholic Church, which is north of UF on West University Avenue, said the regulations and restrictions on feeding and housing the homeless and needy create a situation where they are "no longer considered citizens."

Joe Jackson, a UF legal skills professor who is working with the St. Francis House and other area homeless service providers, said laws against loitering and other crimes should be used to address any problems at or near churches that aid the homeless.

"Repeal the hard and fast one-size-fits-all regulations," Jackson said.

On both sides, there were legal arguments whether or not the regulations violated the right to freedom of religion.

Assistant City Attorney Stephanie Marchman said court decisions in other parts of Florida put the city on firm legal ground to regulate soup kitchens and shelters at churches and other places of religious assembly.

In one case she identified, an appeals court upheld a decision in favor of Palm Beach County, which had issued a code enforcement violation against an area church for operating a homeless shelter without the required permit. That appeals court ruled that permit requirements - or even a prohibition of a shelter at that specific location - was not "a substantial burden on its religious beliefs."

In May 2009, however, a federal court ruled unconstitutional an Orlando ordinance requiring that groups serving meals to at least 25 homeless people in a public park apply for and receive a permit and only have two such meals in one location in a 12-month period.

The law did nothing to advance a public interest, the federal court ruled.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or

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