“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
–Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Basis of Morality, 1840
It turned cold this week.
Not that I would have noticed.
I have a roof over my head, central heating, well-fitting coats, and a warm bed to sleep in – all the comforts of home.
But if you have ever been cold – I mean truly hypothermic – where the biting chill and wind are inescapable, leaving you feeling almost claustrophobic, then you know what a mental and physical toll the cold can extract – even in Florida, where the humidity, or something else, always seem to make it feel even colder.
That’s why for those living on the mean streets who are at the mercy of the elements – taking shelter from extreme cold weather is not a matter of comfort – it is the difference between life and death.
As Mark Geallis, former director of First Step Shelter and one of the most compassionate people I know, asked the tough question earlier this week: “Where will the hundreds of people in east Volusia County living in the misery of homelessness escape the cold this week and will there be enough “Room at the Inn” for all in need?”
According to Mr. Geallis:
“Somehow, we as a community with many new and innovative programs for the homeless have missed the opportunity to provide shelter from the cold, to help suffering people and show them a night of hope and compassion that can sometimes lead to a permanent path out of homelessness. We have missed an opportunity to save tax dollars by not having our jails and ER become the place where many escape the cold.”
With the faith-based organizations that normally provide a warm place for the homeless to shelter closed due to the coronavirus, things look increasingly dire as the winter winds begin to blow.
While The Bridge, a 7,152-square-foot come-as-you-are community shelter in DeLand rapidly made room for 20 people from the west side of the county, our own First Step Shelter, a 15,000-square-foot heated facility, apparently couldn’t be bothered. . .
After much deliberation, First Step officials agreed to put heaters in what is called the “safe zone,” essentially a 1,200-sqare-foot pole barn with a concrete pad, sleeping pallets, and chain-link “walls.”
So long as those seeking “shelter” met a Votran bus at the appointed time on North Street in Daytona Beach, they were granted the opportunity to weather the frosty night outside the First Step building.
The First Step’s outdoor “shelter” was limited to just 24 people.
No word on what became of the 25th in line. . .
I’m not sure an extreme weather facility is what the “safe zone” was intended for – but I know it is not what taxpayers were promised when this debacle was in its infancy.
What seems like a lifetime ago – way back in January of this foul year 2020 – local businesswoman and First Step Shelter board member Rose Ann Tornatore went into her own pocket to do what the City of Daytona Beach would not do, and personally funded the construction of a “safe zone” for homeless persons who are more interested in a temporary refuge than participating in First Step’s convoluted residential self-improvement program.
At that time, I was proud to recognize Ms. Tornatore as a true community angel, someone with a philanthropic spirit, good heart, and clear civic vision, who saw a pressing need in our community and willingly used her personal resources to meet it.
Now that the outdoor space has come to fruition, it seems everyone wants to take parasitic credit for Ms. Tornatore’s initiative.
According to a recent report in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “It’s a day we’ve long awaited,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, who’s been a major force behind last December’s opening of First Step Shelter and today’s opening of the safe zone located in front of the shelter building. “We’ve certainly worked hard to bring it to fruition,” said Henry, who serves as president of the First Step Shelter Board. “I’m just excited about it.”
As usual, Mayor Henry is full of it.
Without Ms. Tornatore’s generosity, there is no way the safe zone would have come to fruition, and he damn well knows it.
The commonsense safe zone concept had become a political football – with Daytona Beach balking at the price – and the mercenary Catholic Charities offering to run the proposed outdoor shelter for a whopping $150,000 annually – along with a continuing debate over placement, construction options, and who would be responsible for this or that, etc.
And, once again, we watched in horror as Mayor Henry lorded over another shit show of epic proportions. . .
Now that the space is operational, the “safe zone” is anything but a low-barrier, come-as-you-are respite from the mean streets.
In fact, you would have a better chance of waltzing into Area 51 than entering the “safe zone” to seek “shelter” from the elements.
According to the News-Journal report:
“Only homeless people escorted by an officer will be accepted into the safe zone. Those wanting to use the facility won’t be allowed to just show up. It’s the same policy that’s used for the shelter, which only accepts people referred from local nonprofits, treatment facilities such as Stewart-Marchman Act, hospitals, houses of worship, law enforcement and the county jail.”
Once a properly referred homeless person is on-site, “Shelter security guards will be the final gatekeepers for who gets into the safe zone.”
Then, the all-powerful guards will “collect information” on those seeking shelter.
How welcoming, eh?
In my experience, the first time a law enforcement officer takes time out of his or her busy night to transport a homeless person all the way out to the hinterlands – only to be turned away by an officious security guard – it will be the last time any police officer in Volusia County darkens First Step’s door.
According to reports, once Zuul the Gatekeeper of Gozer grants a vetted and police escorted homeless person admittance to the inner sanctum, they will be required to follow rules posted on signs that prohibit fighting, loud or disruptive behavior, alcohol, or drug use inside the safe zone – because, as we all know, those types of behaviors in mentally unstable ambulatory alcoholics are best controlled by the use of signage. . .
While the safe zone will be open “around the clock seven days a week” admittance is solely limited to those brought in by law enforcement.
“At 9:00 a.m., all homeless people will have to exit the safe zone and leave the First Step Shelter property. They’ll be offered bus passes to return to the city they came from. There’s a Votran bus stop a short distance east of the shelter.”
And the cycle repeats. . .
Considering that the “shelter” only housed about 10 people a month this year citing coronavirus concerns, with a monthly nut now over $100,000 – the bulk of it in salaries – does anyone else get the sickening feeling First Step is no longer about serving our growing homeless population?
Like everything else associated with First Step, the long-delayed safe zone is convoluted, complicated, needlessly difficult, and horribly expensive.
As usual, the First Step Board of Directors – who have shamelessly been led around like a bull with a ring in its nose by Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm – seem incapable of providing those who pay the bills what we were promised.
In my view, this decade-old fiasco exemplifies all the reasons Mayor Derrick Henry should resign from the First Step board – immediately – and make room for someone with the competence, vision, and leadership skills to get long-suffering taxpayers out of this bottomless quagmire.
After all this time and money, it is the moral and ethical thing to do.
In a very cogent September editorial, “Daytona Beach’s First Step Shelter for the homeless needs to step it up,” News-Journal editor Pat Rice wrote of the $1.09 million in CARES Act funding that the Volusia County Council recently gifted to First Step:
“Maybe that will lead to First Step Shelter serving more homeless people. It better. The public’s patience has worn thin. Housing just 10 people at a cost of $113,000 a month isn’t helping.”