Tallahassee’s City Walk Urban Mission just wanted to set up a transitional housing program for the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. But local officials weren’t having it.
The church and religious mission was technically allowed to operate a temporary cold-night shelter for homeless people in November 2020, but months later, they couldn’t get the permit they needed to expand their operation. Some neighbors weren’t thrilled to be living by a homeless shelter either.
But City Walk went ahead anyway. “This is obedience to God,” the mission’s executive director, Renee Miller, told the Tallahassee Democrat last March. “He’s told me to do it, and until he tells me to stop, I will not stop.”
What happened next snowballed into a full-blown constitutional fight. City Walk sued both the City of Tallahassee and the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Commission for denying its permit application last month. Their argument? Blocking them violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and religious expression.
After all, how can a Christian claim total faith in Jesus and not want to help homeless people?
"For people who are deeply religious and really feel it, the idea is that in many ways they try to follow Christ’s example on Earth. Christ preaches charity and good works to the less fortunate, and that’s what these folks do as a matter of faith,” Gary Edinger, an attorney for City Walk, explained. “It’s not just a private thing for their own benefit or even for the benefit of their congregation, but the idea is that they’re an example for the community."
“That’s the expressive part,” Edinger added. “That’s why there’s a free speech issue.”
That argument isn’t novel. In recent years, anti-poverty activists and religious types have repeatedly found themselves arguing that serving homeless people is a critical constitutional right—that giving money or food can be a means of political expression, or that providing shelter when a person has none can show a commitment to one’s faith.
That’s partly because cities keep erecting barriers to helping the poor. Homeowners and politicians nationwide have worked in tandem to block shelters, shut down food services, build “hostile” architecture, and pass laws to outright criminalize bedding down or asking for money in public. Most often, they claim that greater charity could lead to crime, a degradation in property values, or just an overall lower quality of life.
“In this country, for better or worse, we live by kind of this Judeo-Christian heritage, or we say we do. This is some of the best parts of what that should mean, and yet we’re actually threatening people with criminal sanctions for doing it,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center.
A church in Brookings, Oregon, for example, recently made national news for its pledge to defy a new local ordinance that restricted its ability to feed homeless people to only two free meals a week.
People living around the church had complained, and Brookings officials said they had the authority to limit meal programs because the church services are legally treated like restaurants, which aren’t allowed to operate in residential areas, anyway, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The newly created permit—which didn’t allow for all-week services—at least let the meal programs continue, albeit far less often.
Still, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church sued the city in January, arguing it was being forced to decide between exercising its “core religious beliefs or face enforcement action by the city.”
“The conditional use permit application requires applicants to affirm that they will comply with the terms of the ordinance and not serve meals more than two days per week,” their lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs do not intend to restrict their religious exercise to two days or fewer per week because the community need is greater than serving meals only twice per week.”
One of the most prominent examples of advocates elevating homeless services to a First Amendment issue also occurred in Florida, just at the opposite end of the state. Several years ago, Fort Lauderdale tried to restrict people’s ability to feed homeless people in public, thwarting a weekly feeding program run by a local chapter of the advocacy group Food Not Bombs at a local park. A 90-year-old man even faced criminal charges after attempting to give food to homeless people in the park in 2014, though he was not affiliated with Food Not Bombs.
Food Not Bombs sued, and, last August, a federal appeals court ultimately said the group was being subjected to a rule that amounted “to an outright ban on public food sharing in all of Fort Lauderdale's parks.” The park regulation meant that Food Not Bombs had to get written permission to operate, forcing the group to contend with the “standardless whims of city permitting officials” over an expressive event, the three-judge panel said in a ruling.
“Under the terms of the rule, a city official may deny a request for permission to hold an expressive food sharing event in the park because he disagrees with the demonstration's message, because he doesn't feel like completing the necessary paperwork, because he has a practice of rejecting all applications submitted on Tuesdays, or for no reason at all,” the judges wrote. The rule, as applied to Food Not Bombs, was deemed unconstitutional.
New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church also filed a lawsuit in 2001 in an attempt to stop cops from removing the 20 to 30 homeless people who slept on or around its steps every night. Citing the organization’s First Amendment rights, a federal judge ruled the next year that the church had the right to allow people to rest on its steps—though not on the surrounding sidewalk.
It’s obvious why Christians would help the poor but less obvious why governments would block it, Tars said. He recalled once sitting with a top United Nations human rights official who, upon learning that it was a crime for some Americans to help homeless people, “put her head down on the table.”
“Here’s somebody who has seen the worst of the worst all around the globe, and this is what leaves her speechless,” Tars said. “Whether you’re looking at it from a religious or freedom of expression or human rights perspective, it’s just something that shouldn’t be happening.”
In Tallahassee, it’s illegal to operate a religious homeless mission anywhere without first going through a permitting process. But the rules on whether an application gets approved are vague, subjective, and entirely in the government's hands, according to City Walk’s lawsuit. A shelter may not get approved if it would change the vibe of a neighborhood, for example, or if it's too close to a residential area but too far from the kinds of public transportation that most often exist in residential neighborhoods.
Last March, City Walk was threatened with a $250 daily fine if it continued to house homeless people without the permit it had been denied, though the fine was eventually cut down to $25 per day, thanks to a decision from a local municipal code enforcement magistrate. In the meantime, City Walk appealed Tallahassee’s denial of their permit.
In November, an administrative law judge ultimately ruled in City Walk’s favor, recommending that the mission be allowed to operate as a transitional facility so long as they met certain conditions, like not housing sex offenders.
Even so, City Walk was again denied permission to run the shelter, and the city attorney’s office, which declined to comment to VICE News, threatened to pursue legal action against the mission if it continued to operate without a permit, according to the organization’s lawsuit.
City Walk is now asking for a preliminary injunction, and a hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday, Edinger said. The hope is that it will one day be able to operate without special permission at its current location, while the aspect of “discretionary zoning”—or the process that gives the city the ultimate power to determine whether or not a transitional housing facility can exist in a community—will be declared unconstitutional in Tallahassee.
“If you ask the city, they say, ‘These are bad guys, they’re bad operators, and we’re fining them,’” Edinger said.
As City Walk sees it, though, “they’re trying as best they can to follow the rule and operate within the law, but ultimately the law is not constitutional,” Edinger said. “Good ol’ civil disobedience.”
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