Ministering to the Homeless 4

Christian duty, county law at odds

in Westgate trial

This is the fourth in a series of articles on how to minister to the homeless.    It concerns a church that is intent on helping the homeless despite the efforts of the county where it resides.   The county wants to limit the number served or close them down.  They refuse.  This has been an 8 year battle so far and the church will not back down.  They are intent in their efforts to minister to the homeless where the county does not.

Find this story here
By Sonja Isger
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH – Westgate Tabernacle Church may be a place where the heartbreak of homeless men, women and children seems endless.

But what jurors should see first, said county attorney Amy Petrick, is a property owner who has engaged in a lengthy attempt to dodge county zoning and building regulations.

Church leaders built outdoor showers and toilets without permits and allowed people to sleep under a roof riddled by termite and water damage. They continue to pack as many as 100 people where county fire regulations say only 25 should bed.

Though they now claim they have a constitutional right to house as many homeless people in their sanctuary as they see fit, they once offered to seek a permit to shelter the homeless – up to 14 of them. “That’s what this is really about – the number of folks you can have in this facility,” Petrick said in her opening statements Tuesday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.

While the church occupies only a sandy, weed-filled patch in a run-down neighborhood, the sentiment it has stirred about how this community cares for its homeless has filled newspapers, church petitions and dinner conversations.

One excused juror said she had resolved just this weekend to send the church a check. Another potential juror went home after the first day of questioning and asked her husband to pull Bible verses specifically on the homeless. After being excused, Michelle Damone, a married mother of two, said that years back she got caught in a tropical storm and was taken in by strangers. She remembers praying over dinner with them.

The church’s attorney, Barry Silver, is not only arguing that the church must fulfill its mission, but that the county government is failing its homeless by not providing adequate shelter. On the contrary, Petrick said, the county gets millions from state and federal government to aid the homeless and spends even more of its own.

The county and the church, which was built in 1929 just north of Palm Beach International Airport, have been at odds since 1999, when code enforcement officials determined the church was violating zoning laws by operating a homeless shelter in a residential neighborhood.

This is what ministering to the homeless means

Oldtimer’s Comment: You may think that “packing” people in a “termite riddled” and “water damaged” structure is not the proper place for housing the homeless, but when the alternative is a card board box or abandoned car or a high place on the ground in the weeds, you are wrong.   If the county would provide the services, there would be no need for 10o men and women to show up nightly at the church.   Besides, the description used in court papers do not always shine the light that illustrates the true conditions.   See the YouTube video above and see for yourself.

These homeless people would not show up at the church night after night if there were safer or better accommodations.  It is this church’s determination to serve the homeless in the face of fines and or closure that I applaud, not the conditions, which as I see from the video are not the same as those mentioned in the news article.


3 responses to “Ministering to the Homeless 4

  1. Oldertime, you bring up some great points. Palm Beach County should be ashamed. Bishop Hill is a hero. Thanks for showing the youtube video, it really shows what we should all be doing, helping each other.

  2. I have a question. Is it legal for me to have a biblestudy on the sidewalk? A few of us have gone into a very poor area of down town Tampa Fl. with food and booklets..right beside a salvation army building. There was a large turnout of people who were ministered to. We want to start a bible study by just going to where they hang out. Would that cause a legal problem? Like I said we are on the side walks. Thanks Darleen

  3. Keep in mind I’m not admistering legal advice but…

    I could not possibly believe that holding a bible study would be illegal. We have a right to free speech, and to religious expression.

    There may be laws against loitering but that does not seem to cover this situation. An overzealous policeman might hassle your audience if they are blocking the sidewalk.

    There may be laws against holding a demonstration or parade or public gathering without a permit, but I have never heard of one that does not make exception for religious purposes.

    You need to keep a sack handy and pick up any tract that is dropped or thrown away so that there is no littering involved.

    I don’t know Tampa at all, but I see from the city code that the Ybor City Historic District has some special restrictions on “off premises canvasing (OPC)” that requires permits. Also OPC is prohibited on 6th 7th and 8th street, though it would be a stretch to call this OPC.

    You need to avoid stopping cars or enticing moterists to stop to get a tract. These require special permits for safety reasons.

    Your tracts should be purely religious and have no commercial advertisements in order to avoid the handbill ordnanaces. “no commercial significance”.

    Our city has a law that prohibits such things only if done for the express purpose of soliciting donations or selling products in certain areas (such as the public park) or door to door, but I’ve never heard of a religious gathering being dispersed.

    Some cities may require permits for larger gatherings or the bringing out of chairs, tables etc. for displays.

    If the tracts are given freely and there are no signs posted on city property (trees, telephone poles, etc.) there should be no problem, though I believe that religious signs and political signs generally do not require a permit.

    Certainly if you are asked to leave by the police, you must leave, but their main concern probably will be if you block a sidewalk or driveway or street or building entrance, or some neighbor complains. Try to stay to one side of the sidewalk and not block it. Usually you can ask if you can just move a ways to reduce the blockage.

    If they refuse you to return or continue, then leave, and contact a civil liberties lawyer for advice and/or support.

    Some cities have tried to prohibit feeding of the homeless in certain areas but that has not held up in court. Sometimes they have tried to limit it to certain hours or certain numbers and arrests have been made but they have not held up. I didn’t see anything in the Tampa city code but you might double check me on that.

    Here is a link to the Tampa Code of Ordinances:

    Grace and Peace,


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