Flagler County officials could have the beginning stages of a plan to deal with homelessness in 30 days.
PALM COAST — Stakeholders representing several government agencies and private organizations met to hash out the ongoing issue of homelessness during a Flagler County Public Safety Coordinating Council workshop Wednesday at the Emergency Operations Center in Bunnell.
[READ: Officials forced to confront homelessness in Flagler]
In the end, the panel recommended that Interim Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron designate a liaison from the county’s staff to work with leaders of local social service organizations to come up with some possible solutions and asked members of the county’s homelessness task force to produce a preliminary report within 30 days.
The topic of homelessness in Flagler County flared last week after county officials posted and distributed an "order to vacate" at a makeshift camp on about 19 acres of county land behind the Flagler County Public Library’s main branch along Palm Coast Parkway in the city of Palm Coast. The plan then, which was quickly scrapped following public outcry on social media, was to move at least some of the area's homeless residents to a rural county park.
The encampment near the library, which has been in existence — and mostly tolerated — for several years, had traditionally been occupied by up to about 20 people. But local officials said the population had proliferated over the past month until there were nearly 40 people living in squalor in the wooded area west of the library. That created issues that county and Palm Coast city officials could no longer ignore.
[READ: Flagler scraps plan to bus homeless to rural county park]
"We’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to address it," County Commissioner Joe Mullins said during Wednesday's meeting. "That’s what we’re doing here."
The first-year commissioner chairs the Public Safety Coordinating Council, a subcommittee that includes law enforcement officials, healthcare experts, judges and judicial officials as well as representatives from several area nonprofits and service organizations.
On Wednesday, talks centered on how to address the issue of homelessness and became emotional when a group of women claiming to be homeless addressed the panel.
"I didn’t do anything wrong," Bonnie Weygrandt said through tears as she recounted how three strokes led to her living on the streets. "I need a place to live. Please help me."
Both Mullins and Palm Coast City Councilman Jack Howell, who is also a member of the safety panel, emphasized the need for immediate solutions and quick action. He recommended forming an ad hoc committee that could formulate initial plans.
But Mullins argued for a three-pronged approach including legislation, organization and location. He said that meant passing ordinances to regulate panhandling and camping in undesignated areas, which the Sheriff’s Office could then use to deter homelessness. He also suggested involving organizations like the Salvation Army to screen transients for mental health and addiction issues before housing them.
A key component of his approach involved finding a place to shelter the homeless once they are removed from unwanted areas.
But Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed cautioned that most "quality of life" ordinances, such as those mentioned by Mullins, have been struck down as unconstitutional in other cities. Sheriff Rick Staly agreed, and said using law enforcement to address the issue would only solve the problem visually and for a short term.
"I am very cautious that we should not make the Flagler County jail the de facto homeless shelter by arresting a lot of people for ordinance violations," Staly said. "It doesn’t solve the problem, it jams up the court system and it jams my deputies."
Trish Giaccone, executive director of the Family Life Center, reminded the panel that Flagler already has a task force dedicated to tackling the issues of homelessness and housing. She suggested the Public Safety Coordinating Council take some of its cues from that task force, members of which have been engaged with the homeless community for years.
"I just don’t think it’s prudent for us as a committee to kind of swoop in and say this is what we want," Giaccone said. "Let’s talk to the people that have been doing this day in and day out for the last several years and say 'what do you want to see happen and how do we work together?'"