'What Am I Supposed to Do?'

No good deed goes unturned, goes the old saw. Unless, that is, those deeds are done in Palm Beach County, Florida.

That’s what Avis Hill discovered after responding to the needs of the homeless in the wealthy south Florida county. Hill is the pastor of the nondenominational Christian church, Westgate Tabernacle, a ministry that has served Palm Beach County for 50 years.

Hill wanted to expand the church's services to homeless men and women in town. But instead of accolades, his efforts have been met with bureaucratic red tape from the county, a rash of legal headaches and thousands of dollars in bills for the church.

According to Hill, a shelter run by the Salvation Army in his neighborhood shut its doors a couple of years ago and moved its 80 beds out of the area, leaving several dozen homeless men and women - many with drug and alcohol addictions - on the street. Several of them migrated to Westgate Tabernacle, "sleeping on the porch and the picnic tables nearby," Hill said.

Some of them men and women knocked on his door seeking food and clothing or showers, and he obliged.

"After a period of a few months, we opened the doors to the fellowship hall next to the church," he said. Hill and Westgate Tabernacle offered the homeless shelter for the night.

Shelters for the homeless are few and far between in Palm Beach. Word circulated in the area about Westgate’s shelter, so veterans groups, referral agencies, and Palm Beach police began bringing addicts and homeless there for help.

Hill says there are no emergency mission facilities in the county. "So, police officers and VA reps and other folks bring people to my doorstep. What am I supposed to do, turn them away?"

That’s when the Palm Beach County Planning, Zoning, and Building Board stepped in. And that’s when, according to the folks at Westgate, their efforts to help the homeless stalled.

According to Terry Verner, Director of the Palm Beach County Code Enforcement, Westgate was hit with three citations, one in May of 1998 and two in April of 1999 after complaints from a local resident, he said.

The county inspected the operation and told Hill that he needed a license to run the shelter, and needed to make some repairs to the facility. So he made the repairs.

Hill said he then filled out the necessary paperwork, but the zoning authority denied his application. For their part, officials at the zoning authority don’t recall even getting an application.

Last summer, the board retroactively fined Westgate $20,000 for operating a shelter. Then, in December, the board put a lien against the church and hired a collection agency to force it to cough up the money.

Hill says he had no idea a fine would be levied against the church for allowing homeless to sleep in his shelter. "If I had known a huge fine was to be levied against us, I probably would have turned those [homeless] folks away," he said.

Unable to pay for more repairs or the fine, Westgate ceased sheltering the homeless and has curtailed its ministry. It now refers the homeless to other services in the County, even though they still sleep around the church grounds.

The Palm Beach County zoning authorities say Westgate should have known all along what was required of them.

But Hill sees himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, between what he feels are his obligations as a Christian minister to serve the needs of his community and a bureaucracy that inadvertently increases his workload while tying his hands.

"There are liquor stores and there are strip clubs with prostitution prevalent in the area and we are zoned for that [in this area]. It’s OK to zone for these establishments," Hill says. "But if we try to meet the needs of those who fall prey to drug addiction or alcohol or what have you, we’re told we can’t do that. So what am I supposed to do?"

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