The Tallahassee-Leon Shelter and First Presbyterian Church have a shared history. The roots of the Shelter go back to the winter of 1986 (as I recall) when we operated a shelter in our Education Building. That was a tough winter, and it exposed the need for a more comprehensive approach to sheltering people coping with homelessness and alleviating homelessness in our community. After that first winter, a Board of Directors was formed and a 501c3 not-for-profit agency was established. After operating cold-night shelters in vacant buildings for a few winters, the Shelter found a home in what had been a rock-a-billy bar on Tennessee Street.
The Shelter is now a full-fledged agency with close to a million-dollar budget. It has been many years since I was on the Board of Directors of the Shelter. I have no role in its governance, but I do have a heart for its mission.
I do not want to second-guess the Shelter’s Board. I have good friends on that Board whom I respect. I have every confidence that they are doing their best to address the issues raised in recent weeks. All I want to do in this column is make some observations about how the scene has changed since the Shelter’s early days.
- Mel Eby, the Shelter’s Executive Director, has become the face, voice, and public persona of the Shelter. As the Shelter’s website puts it, Mel is “Our Legendary Director.” I can think of no other agency in town that is so closely identified with its Executive Director. As with every charismatic leader, passions run high when Mel’s name comes up. I know people (some homeless, some not) who speak of Mel in reverential tones. I know others who regard him as a less-than-benevolent dictator. (I know pastors who evoke similar passions.)
- The population of people dealing with homelessness has grown. We thought we had a problem back in 1986. In the last point-in-time survey, the tally reached almost 1,000. The actual number is probably four times that total.
- The demand for the Shelter’s services far exceeds its capacity. About 200 people sleep in, or near, the Shelter every night. That’s roughly double the number of beds inside the building. People who aren’t assigned bunk beds sleep on mats on the floor; others sleep outside. The Shelter has been operating in “overload mode” for years.
- Programs to address homelessness have expanded. In addition to the Hope Community operated by the Coalition for the Homeless, there are programs for veterans and programs targeted for the “chronically homeless.” These are the people who comprise about 16% of the homeless population, but use the lion’s share of services. Several church-based ministries also provide housing. In other words, the Shelter is one of several agencies battling homelessness. By no means are these services meeting all the needs of homeless neighbors.
- A splendid model of inter-agency cooperation has emerged. The Renaissance Community Center, funded entirely by private dollars, has proven that agencies can work together to help people coping with homelessness.
- NIMBYism is here to stay. Back in the late 80’s it was relatively easy to set up a shelter on West Tennessee Street. The City and County were helpful, and there was little neighborhood opposition. That dynamic has changed. These days it is much more difficult to find a home for people who have no home.
A crisis, painful as it can be, can also be an opportunity. Now is the time for our community to re-think our approach. We can’t continue to cram people into an inadequate building. And we can’t we rely on a single person to be the face and conscience of the community. As grateful as I am to Mel and to the Shelter Board, we have to move forward. The focus must be on what’s best for neighbors who are homeless.