Gulf County Commissioners Adopt Two Ordinances Regulating Homeless Shelters

Port St. Joe- Gulf County commissioners passed two new ordinances Tuesday night to regulate homeless shelters. But they don’t even have any homeless people living in the area leaving some people questioning the commission’s decision making.

The county said it’s trying to be proactive and prevent homeless problems as seen in Panama City, but others said the wording in the two new ordinances could do more harm than good.

The first adoption by commissioners was a nuisance ordinance. It says that any shelter which gets five or more calls to police within a 30 day period will be labeled a nuisance and that could eventually lead to the county shutting the operation down. This legislation is much like what Panama City commissioners passed recently.

Tuesday night ACLU Northwest Director Susan Watson expressed her worries that this law will scare away people who may really need the help.

“Victims of domestic violence have to repeatedly call law enforcement. If they call five times under the way this ordinance is written they could be evicted, the victims themselves,” said Watson.Not true. Ms. Watsons needs to go back and read the ordinance to better understand the details.

The second ordinance passing by a unanimous vote will regulate where future homeless shelters can set up shop within Gulf County, but since the county’s not all that big, the ordinance’s wording could lead some people to possibly look at it as discrimination. Gulf County Commissioner Bill Williams was quick to shoot down that claim.

“This is about longevity and sustainability in our communities, so no it’s not about ‘not in my backyard,’ it’s about if you come, here are the rules,” said Williams. This is what elected officials are paid to do. Their job is to be proactive in guiding the community to prosperity by formulating ordinances that protect the community that elected him.

County commissioners ended the meeting agreeing to continue working on the wording of the two ordinances. Williams said amendments are certainly not out of the question.

The Board of County Commissioners last week unanimously approved an ordinance to regulate homeless shelters and amended the county’s nuisance ordinance.

The homeless shelter ordinance – the product of months of work by a committee appointed by commissioners – restricts where such a facility can be placed and mandates services provided by any such shelter, which could not receive a permit beyond 12 months.

The ordinance effectively expands on the tourist corridors initially mapped for a proposed RV ordinance which did not get beyond second reading last year.

Any homeless shelter would be prohibited in three corridors: within a one-mile radius of U.S. Highway 98, County Road 30-A and 30E, as well as State Roads 30-A and 30-E to the Franklin County line.

A shelter would also be prohibited within a one-mile radius of State Road 71 from U.S. 98 north.

The ordinance also establishes policies and procedures for an organization or individual wishing to establish a homeless shelter in the county.

The operator of the facility would have the burden, when applying to the BOCC for a 12-month permit, to establish that a proposed location is appropriate; that the shelter will provide basic essentials for life; that the shelter’s trained professionals provide all medical care and access to social services.

Shelter staff must provide all transportation for residents; provide security, including badges or names tags identifying an individual as a resident; operating rules; a community liaison to outside agencies; self-sufficient plans for dealing an emergency or natural disaster; and a structured discharge plan.

The facility would also have to meet all county building regulations and pay a permit fee.

There is also a due process provision in the event of violations of the ordinance, allowing the operator 10 days to address problems and there is a 24-evacuation provision – with all residents transported to the nearest appropriate facility – should the operator fail to adequately address violations of the ordinance.

“This started a year ago,” said Christine McElroy, who has spearheaded the attempt to have city and county governments approve ordinances to protect the community from some of the impacts, i.e. crime, medical expenses paid by taxpayers, loitering, etc. that have plagued the Panama City Rescue Mission.

The Gulf Coast Hope Center, located on U.S. 98 on the north end of Port St. Joe, is a satellite office of the Rescue Mission.

“This has been controversial and it hasn’t been easy,” McElroy continued. “It’s been a lot of research and a lot of blood sweat and tears, but it has been worth it.”

The ordinance exempts shelters established due to an emergency, such as a natural disaster, and also spells out that the ordinance covers shelters for adults only.

Should a permit be issued for such a facility, the county could review the facility’s impact after the 12-month term of the permit.

The nuisance ordinance established that should any activity on a given property necessitate the response of law enforcement at least five times in a 30-day period, the property would be deemed a nuisance and subject to penalties and fines.

The owners of the property, if rented or leased, would also be liable under the nuisance ordinance penalties.

The nuisance ordinance drew a response from Susan Watson, Northwest Regional Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Watson said the nuisance ordinance could have a chilling effect on victims of domestic abuse, noting that victim might think twice about notifying authorities of abuse if a frequency of phone calls results in homelessness.

She said the ordinance raised “serious legal issues” pertaining to First Amendment and due process legalities, that it should exempt innocent victims of crime and be applied to individual dwellings such as an individual apartment, rather than an entire apartment complex.

“My only concern is you don’t have unintended consequences,” Watson said.

Commission chair Commissioner Bill Williams said in a small county there was the ability to work with the Sheriff’s Office and groups such as the Domestic Violence Task Force to work through such issues and said commissioners and the county attorney would closely consider Watson’s suggestions in contemplation of tweaking the nuisance ordinance.

The homeless and nuisance ordinances were scheduled to be taken up on a first reading – with approval in early August – by the Port St. Joe City Commission this past Tuesday.

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