Palm Beach County is synonymous with wealth. But county policies toward the homeless were pure see-no-evil. Here's one blast I took at the commissioners over the situation.Date: Thursday, February 2, 2006
COUNTY'S VIEW OF HOMELESS A DISGRACE
COUNTY'S VIEW OF HOMELESS A DISGRACE
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B
Byline: HOWARD GOODMAN COMMENTARY
The place needs a coat of paint, probably a new ceiling.
A good dusting, at the very least.
Westgate Tabernacle Church looks as down on its luck as the poor and homeless it welcomes under its leaking roof.
Associate pastor Alan Clapsaddle looks beyond the appearances. "We're a community of love," he says.
He's a former deputy sheriff from Pennsylvania who wears a golden cross on his neck and speaks with practicality and tenderness about the people his church embraces -- people with schizophrenia, sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol addictions and with out-of-wedlock children.
"Whosoever will, let him come," is the operative injunction. It stems from Revelation. It isn't easy to translate into day-to-day life.
The little church on the outskirts of West Palm Beach has housed homeless people since it opened in 1929, Clapsaddle says. It's now at record numbers, 80 to 116 people a night, many of them washed in by hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.
They sleep on the floor between the pews -- men on one side, women on the other. Women with children sleep in a crowded room alongside the sanctuary.
There's dirt. There's coughing.
The county does not approve of the run-down church in the run-down neighborhood. Since 1999, it's hassled the church with tens of thousands of dollars in fines and liens on the property, claiming Westgate is illegally operating a shelter.
Westgate countered with a lawsuit, arguing that county government has no right to tell a religious ministry what it can and can't do. The case has dragged on for four years. A court date is set for May.
The liens are a big reason the church is struggling financially, says Barry Silver, the Boca Raton attorney who represents the church. They prevent Westgate from receiving tax money available to faith-based institutions.
"The government doesn't want to give money to some place the county says is illegal," Silver says.
The shelter's woes were highlighted Monday when Florida Power and Light Co. shut them off for about eight hours over an unpaid bill. True, the church had fallen four months behind. But the benefactor who usually supports the church had settled the $6,383 bill by sending a cashier's check. Apparently FPL isn't set up to process cashier's checks quickly.
A former resident came to the rescue. This man, a Vietnam veteran now living independently, donated his $3,200 disability check. Like the other benefactor, he wants to remain anonymous, Clapsaddle said.
"It shows the way people feel about each other here," he said.
It's pathetic that in this county, one of the richest in America, it's this shabby little church that serves as the defacto homeless shelter. It's more pathetic that the county, instead of helping out, acts like its nemesis.
The county doesn't run a homeless shelter. Instead there is a bureaucracy of agencies that runs on the $4 million in federal money coming this year. Most of those beds go to people with special conditions: addicts, or unwed mothers.
People are showing up at Westgate's door for a reason. "I really think there's a need for this kind of service in the community," says Gerard Desmarais, head of the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County.
At last count, about two years ago, this county had about 4,000 homeless people with only 282 beds. A new census of homeless is being tallied now.
The county's antipathy toward Westgate doesn't make sense unless this county is so enamored of the wealthy image that its leaders can't abide the thought of homeless people in our midst.
That's Silver's take on it. "They want all the homeless to go to Broward or Miami-Dade."
The county's attitude toward this church is a shame.
Contact Westgate Tabernacle at www.westgatetabernacle.org or 561-471-9309.