Two organizations – two views of homelessness

Historic City News has received more than a few comments from readers who were incensed at the recent “Mayor’s Holiday Lighting Gala” hosted by St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles on Saturday, November 20th.

At issue is the appropriateness of a $150.00 per person cocktail party and catered dinner being hosted by the mayor, using city resources, ostensibly for the benefit the St. Francis House Building Fund.

St. Augustine Society, Inc., the non-profit organization that operates St. Francis House, provides emergency shelter to those in need based on availability of arguably limited resources. According to published claims, the St. Francis House is the only full time emergency shelter between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach and serves St. Johns, Clay, Putnam, and Flagler Counties.

The mayor’s gala, a private affair, is co-mingled with the Nights of Lights lighting ceremony, a public event. This makes accounting for costs and resources more difficult. The separation of the “haves” and the “have nots” however, is very clear — beginning with which public venue you are, or are not, allowed access.

The “have nots”, for example, would be arrested and hauled off to jail if they were caught drinking alcoholic beverages from open containers as they walked the streets from the Plaza de la Constitucion to the city-owned Lightner Museum building. The “haves” were not only allowed the privilege but were given an escort by a “1740 Color Guard”.

Historic City News Editor Michael Gold spoke with two local residents who have been active in grass roots organizations that operate with less funding than the St. Augustine Society, Inc., and are primarily made up of volunteer workers whose activities directly assist homeless people. The two have different takes on the benefit of the mayor’s private party to the homeless in St. Augustine.

Mary Lawrence, co-founder of an organization known as People United to Stop Homelessness (PUSH), and Terry Buckenmeyer, who says that he is no longer an active member of PUSH, but is still friends with Lawrence, and was, at one time, a member of St. Augustine’s Food Not Bombs collective, both have donated time and money to arrange food and shelter for the homeless.

According to Lawrence, the mission of PUSH is to end homelessness. She tells us that PUSH has three main goals: advocacy, education and outreach.

Members of PUSH have stood in front of the Lightner Museum building, holding signs, every year on the light-up night for the Nights of Lights, Lawrence said. She says the purpose of the signs which display homelessness statistics, is “for the education of the guests at the Mayor’s fundraiser gala.”

“The first year,” Lawrence said, “vocal and somewhat misguided advocates, some not members of PUSH, so verbally abused the guests entering, that by the time they arrived at the door to the Lightner, you could see the pain and bewilderment on their faces.”

Lawrence says that it is important that PUSH continues to educate these affluent guests on what exactly “they were donating to.”

So, what exactly are the mayor’s guests “donating to”?

First of all, the “St. Francis House Building Fund” is not the same thing as the “St. Francis House Emergency Shelter”. The building fund does not ameliorate the plight of the homeless. In fact, the building fund has been at the center of controversy in recent months as plans have been on-again, off-again for the acquisition of a new shelter location.

In a letter published today, St. Augustine Society, Inc., board member Jon Benoit wrote, “As a result of conversations with the County Commissioners, the St. Francis House Board of Directors has decided not to appeal the St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Board denial of our proposed development plan for Old Moultrie Road.”

Lawrence sees the homeless person as the focus of her concern, not the location of the building where services are available. PUSH was feeding people in the Plaza until the mayor and commissioners put a stop to it — redirecting the participants to the parking area behind the City Hall building.

“PUSH has been controversial,” Lawrence told Historic City News. “Over the past four years, PUSH has been known for “calling out” city and county officials and various agencies for in-action and non-cooperation.”

Nonetheless, Lawrence believes that the new serving site has been “an apparent success”, and that there are other positive signs in view — namely, the involvement of more churches, businesses and civic groups and the surprisingly refreshing cooperation between the city and the county in recognizing homelessness as a countywide issue.

Buckenmeyer, on the other hand, does not see the mayor’s gala as beneficial to homeless people in St. Augustine. “The real question is exactly how much money was raised at each of these benefits and where is it now?” Buckenmeyer asked.

Buckenmeyer is also concerned about use of city resources to finance a private affair worthy of royalty. “How much did the city pay out? Last year the mayor handed out parking cards to the guests,” Buckenmeyer noted. “Who paid for those? Who paid the city employee’s overtime?”

Buckenmeyer says that real homeless people are insulted by the pomp and circumstance associated with the gala. “There is a picture on the PUSH website of the “private event” sign — next to the free meal being served by Food Not Bombs,” Buckenmeyer pointed out. “Last year, I had a sign which said — Keep your $150.00 talk to a homeless person. Two of the homeless took the sign from me and held it themselves.”

The Historic City News readers who have protested or questioned the mayor’s gala seem to share a view expressed by Buckenmeyer in his comments. “Food Not Bombs is based on the idea of direct action. You see a problem, you see an answer and then you just do it.”

Buckenmeyer explained, “Seven years ago, 4 young people saw hungry people and saw edible wasted food. They simply got the food and shared it with the hungry people.”

“No charity, no corporations, no government, no rules, no bosses, no procedures — just action.”

Photo credits: © 2010 Historic City News staff photographer

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