I hate to call “bait and switch,” on the First Step Shelter, but I’m definitely leading the growing chorus of Volusia County taxpayers – and concerned politicians – who feel that what we paid for, and what we ultimately received, are two very different things. . .
I’m not inclined to provide a history lesson to politicians who never seem to learn from it – but many here in the “Real World” will recall those dark days in the winter of 2016 when the City of Daytona Beach closed access to restrooms, benches and the relative concealment of soggy cardboard boxes and dirty blankets tucked into the oyster middens of Manatee Island.
The equal and opposite backfire to this misguided action was an orchestrated mass migration of homeless from the shadows to a very visible perch outside the County Administration building on North Beach Street.
The occupation became a very visible social, civic and economic reminder – and one that would drive what ultimately came to be the ungodly expensive First Step Shelter.
As early as 2013, when the homeless population grew in the face of the Great Recession, our local “movers & shakers” began to explore options for “controlling” the problem – or at least providing a rudimentary shelter that would comport with laws prohibiting the institutional humiliation of the homeless population.
To that end, in early 2014, the city hired controversial shelter consultant Robert Marbut – who now serves the Trump administration as our national director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – paying him some $135,000 for his suggestions.
Ultimately, Marbut developed a plan – then known as Volusia Safe Harbor – which the News-Journal described as a “no-frills, 26,000-square-foot shelter with 250 beds on county property” that would be funded by all 16 Volusia County municipalities chipping in a cumulative total of $1.6 million annually for operating costs.
By 2015, Volusia County finally got off their ass and offered property near Stewart-Marchman ACT and other service providers – along with $4 million for construction costs and $2 million for operational expenses over five years.
Then, in February 2016, immediately following the Beach Street encampment, the county’s contribution was formalized in a written agreement – but the plan went down in flames on a split vote of the County Council – ostensibly over concerns the municipalities weren’t adequately committed to supporting operating costs.
In 2017, Daytona Beach countered with a contentious idea – under a nonprofit formed by the city called First Step Shelter – with the selling point that the facility could be built quickly, and at a lower cost, than the original plan.
Endless debate began over every aspect of the proposed shelter – would it be tensile fabric, modular buildings, tents, trailers, etc. – and time marched on.
We were told, “an important goal for the city is to design a shelter building with an estimated construction cost not to exceed $2 million.”
Within months – and without any logical explanation to long-suffering taxpayers – construction costs alone soared to over $6 million with operating costs estimated at $1.1 to $1.7 million annually.
(And don’t get me started on the uber-weird ancillary “deal” to allow P$S Paving to haul publicly owned fill dirt off the site and sell it for private profit. . .)
In November, The Daytona Beach News-Journal announced, “New Daytona homeless shelter to include safe zone,” a legal place for homeless persons to sleep and an integral part of why many Volusia County cities signed on in the first place.
The area would have provided homeless persons who either can’t, or won’t, participate in First Step’s publicly funded self-help seminar a place to sleep in relative safety – and an option to incarceration for those engaging in “life sustaining” activities, such as sleeping or creating unsanitary conditions in a public place.
Now, we’re faced with yet another growing shit storm after the current iteration of the much-anticipated Safe Zone was effectively killed by unilateral edict of City Manager Jim Chisholm – eliminating the one piece of this complex and incredibly expensive solution that the municipalities were promised.
What was once billed as a reasonably priced “come as you are” low barrier shelter has transmogrified into a mysterious personal development program that, as far as I know, has never been publicly explained in terms of programmatic goals, success in similar shelters or per client operational and ancillary costs.
And abject confusion reigns. . .
As an example, on Wednesday afternoon, I watched in absolute shock as members of the First Step Shelter Board – with the exception of Ormond Beach City Commissioner Dwight Selby, who pushed to allow staff to develop a workable policy – explained why they didn’t believe the shelter should permit the common humanitarian service of protecting vulnerable homeless people from the threat of exposure and hypothermia on extremely cold nights.
You read that right.
Our $6 million dollar “homeless shelter” will not provide cold weather shelter to our homeless population. . .
Christ. That’s not penny-pinching – that’s cruel.
Then, after much saber rattling in the newspaper, the First Step Board took a namby-pamby, do-nothing position after Mr. Chisholm put the kibosh on the promised Safe Zone when they simply kicked the can even further down the road as they ostensibly search for additional funding (or a new plan, or something.)
In my view, most telling was when members began discussion on the fate of the Safe Zone – and Mayor Derrick Henry fled the room like a base coward taking his city attorney with him – as the City of Daytona Beach abruptly cut the television feed with the meeting still in progress.
They had a commission meeting, you know. . .
Trust me. If anyone at First Step – or the City of Daytona Beach – thinks that kind of petty crap instills confidence in potential donors, they are mistaken.
All we know for certain is that First Step is NOT a homeless shelter – and acceptance into the “program” appears to be contingent on a persons willingness to jump through a multitude of hoops – making First Step anything but “low barrier.”
In a Tweet earlier this week, Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post said:
“Unfortunately people finding a way to the shelter & showing up are being turned away with no assistance being told “They don’t take walk-ins”. On a hopeful note, discussion about being a cold weather shelter is expected to be discussed at their next Board mtg.”
With just 23 homeless persons currently being served – and multitudes remaining on the street – many of my neighbors are asking serious questions about the future of this unsustainable money pit, and when our representatives on the First Step Shelter Board will finally grow a pair and challenge Mr. Chisholm’s unrestrained power over a program our tax dollars are helping underwrite.
And perhaps its time for the Volusia County Council to determine the direction of this mess before releasing one more dime of our tax dollars – because it is growing more apparent that First Step has the financial life expectancy of a consumptive Mayfly. . .
In my view, our municipal representatives should make good on their promise to pull external funding for this godawful quagmire and turn the facility, operation and growing expense over to Daytona Beach once and for all.
Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal