The president and CEO of St. Matthew’s House says complaints from some Bonita Springs residents and a possible moratorium on processing permits for homeless shelters in the city does not necessarily affect the charity’s plans to establish a shelter off Old 41 Road.
More than 200 residents attended a Bonita Springs City Council meeting last week to voice their concerns about a possible homeless shelter at the now-vacant Synovous Bank building on Cockleshell Court, about one-half mile south of the Bonita Charter School.
The residents cited the possibility of increased crime and the property’s location near the school and residential areas as reasons for concern. Some also argued that Bonita Springs has no need for a homeless shelter.
But Ellison said St. Matthew’s House has become a good neighbor in Naples, where similar complaints have proven unfounded.
“For 25 years, we’ve had a facility immediately adjacent to a day care facility in Naples and there have been no problems,” he said. “The people we are serving are poor, they’re not predators. They’re no more dangerous than people in a gated community.”
St. Matthew’s House first opened its doors in an old firehouse on Airport-Pulling Road in Naples, next door to the Collier County Government Center.
That original site now includes a feeding ministry as well as Justin’s Place, a substance abuse ministry that houses clients during a 9-month program.
Two blocks north from Justin’s Place, St. Matthew’s operates a facility with a 64-bed unit for men, an 18-bed unit for women and a 20-bed unit for women with children and infants.
Some residents and officials raise concerns whenever a new homeless facility is planned, said Ellison.
“They are a vocal minority, not a majority,” said Ellison. “There’s never going to be a site that will please that group.”
Michele Micieli, director of a preschool operated by East Naples United Methodist Church, said the preschool’s location next to Justin’s Place has not caused any problems.
“They have been a good neighbor, we have no problems or issues with them at all,” she said.
Micieli said she has never heard parents voice concerns about the school’s location or the clients of St. Matthew’s House.
Although clients and staff of St. Matthew’s House have volunteered to trim bushes and perform other yard work for the school during off hours, contact between the organizations is minimal.
“They are right next door, but everybody just keeps to themselves,” she said. “There’s no interference.”
Collier County commissioners recently voiced concerns about a rumored expansion of St. Matthew’s on Airport Road, however. County staff is currently evaluating the possibility of purchasing a property near St. Matthew’s House, the former site of a DeVoe car dealership.
Although the building would provide county government with more office space, commissioners noted it would also prevent St. Matthew’s House from expanding there.
Controversy in Bonita Springs arose when the owner of the Cockleshell Court property agreed to sell the empty bank building and more than 6 acres to a private trust affiliated with St. Matthews House.
The property owner previously asked the city whether a homeless shelter would be permitted at the site.
By a 6-1 vote, the Bonita city council agreed to hold a second public hearing of a moratorium on permitting the establishment of homeless shelters within the city.
The moratorium would last 12 months or until an ordinance regulating homeless shelters can be adopted.
The earliest a moratorium could go into effect would be 30 days after the second hearing, scheduled for April 18, said City Attorney Audrey Vance.
Ellison said St. Matthew’s House has tried to avoid controversy by not speaking out about the property, but he has received community support for a facility in Bonita Springs.
“But the next few weeks will be dedicated to educating the public,” he said. “We need to let them know what we are all about, and I think most people will respond reasonably.”
Ellison said his organization has not decided whether it would try to apply for permits before April 18, but it is an option.
“We don’t want to rush things to beat a deadline,” he said. “A development order and building permits take time and lots of money to develop. We don’t want to cut corners, and we’d have to evaluate if we have time to accomplish that or not.”
The city’s Local Planning Agency is also working on regulations that would govern the size and placement of homeless shelters.
Vance said that work is very preliminary, so far.
“It’s not even close to what I would imagine the final result will look like,” she said. “At this point, I can’t say what will be in anything the city council might adopt.”
Ellison said any ordinance or new regulations shouldn’t prevent a shelter from being established at the Cockleshell Court site.
“The original ordinance as proposed stated a shelter could not be within 1,000 feet of a school, and border to border the site is 1,850 feet from the school,” he said. “With setbacks, building to building, the distance is more than 2,000 feet.”