BONITA SPRINGS — After three hours of heated public comment Wednesday, Bonita Springs City Council unanimously approved a temporary moratorium on permits for future homeless shelters.
However, the decision likely will not affect the proposed St. Matthew's House project to expand into Bonita Springs.
The East Naples-based shelter and social services provider submitted on Tuesday the development order required to turn a 9.3 acre-property off of Old U.S. 41 into its third homeless shelter, well ahead of when the moratorium goes into effect May 18.
As long as the paperwork is in order, "I don't think we can tell them no," the city's attorney Audrey Vance said.
What would influence the proposed shelter are any regulations enacted during the moratorium.
Draft ordinances for the council's consideration are to be drawn up by the city attorney in collaboration with city planners, and will take into account the research into other communities that have gone through the process of incorporating a homeless shelter, Vance said.
Regulations could guide how the facility operates and could require the shelter be responsible for services to its residents, like basic medical treatment, as well as modifications to its physical presence, like walls or shrubs to act as screens.
"There are some bad shelters out there," Vance said. "You want something that protects not just the people on the outside but the people on the inside too."
Case studies from other counties in Florida, Illinois, and California, among others, are being taken into consideration, she said.
The morning meeting, attended by about 300 people, saw 45 opponents and supporters step up to the microphone to voice their concerns.
Vann Ellison, president and CEO of St. Matthew's House, said during the meeting that for him, there was no doubt the moratorium "was aimed at one organization and one property."
After the vote, he said that although the moratorium will likely not have an impact on his organization's plans to take over a defunct bank building at 9200 Cockleshell Court and build a residential facility, the decision by the six councilmembers and Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson was a disappointment.
"It encourages those that are opposed to us...," Ellison said. "(It) gives merit to their stance that we shouldn't be there."
Ellison also clarified that although the development order calls for a 260-bed facility to be built in two phases, St. Matthew's House plans on a shelter for only 62 people, including 10 rooms for families.
Members of BSafe Bonita, a citizens' group that advocated against the Cockleshell Court location, were content with the moratorium's passage and remain wary of the shelter's presence.
The majority of speakers at the meeting wore yellow BSafe stickers and cited as their primary concerns crime and the quarter-mile distance between the proposed shelter and Bonita Springs Charter School — which was built on land owned by the same trust that owns the Cockleshell property. Many opponents encouraged locating the shelter in eastern Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, or Cape Coral.
"I don't want homeless people," said Judy Basler, who lives near the proposed St. Matthew's House location. "I'm not against them, I just don't want the one that can't get a bed roaming my streets."
At the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., executive director Neil Donovan has watched the battle for St. Matthew's House of Bonita Springs play out, and has spoken with the organization's head.
"It seems that Bonita Springs has a track record of being welcoming to other groups of individuals who want to develop, but in this case there is more a reaction of nimbyism," Donovan said, referring to the acronym for "not in my backyard."
In observing similar conflicts in communities around the country, "success has been through reasonable negotiations and accommodation," Donovan said.
The voices of the homeless could play an important role in compromise, he said. While advocacy groups may be unflinching, he said, "if you had a homeless person at the table, they might say 'Ok with me.'"
Proponents and opponents of the shelter need to find a space for dialogue, Mayor Nelson said.
"I think there needs to be a level of compassion on both sides and I think we are not there yet," he said.
When asked to what extent future regulations governing homeless shelters in Bonita Springs could curtail the work of St. Matthew's House, which currently operates shelters in East Naples and Immokalee, Vance said from a legal stand point it would be difficult to whittle the organization's activities down to nothing now that the development order was received by the city.
"You don't go in and take something that's existing out of existence," Vance said, "unless you have very good documentation supporting doing that."