WEST PALM BEACH (CN) – In its third lawsuit against Palm Beach County, a church says hundreds of homeless people will suffer if code enforcement officers have their way. And in an ironic sidelight, the church claims a code enforcement officer who testified against it has been bringing his former brother-in-law to its shelter to sleep.
The long-running dispute features some interdenominational good will. Attorney Barry Silver, a rabbi and self-proclaimed “liberal” from Boynton Beach, represents the church, Westgate Tabernacle, and its socially conservative Evangelist pastor, Avis Hill.
Silver and Hill are fighting fines that have accrued since 1998, when Palm Beach County officials first cited the church for operating a “congregate living facility” without a permit.
The church, which houses hundreds of homeless each night, owes more than $30,000 in compounded fines, according to county attorney Amy Petrick, for failing to comply with electrical codes in its shelter’s tent, and for failing to obtain a shelter permit under the county’s Unified Land Development Code.
The county has recorded a lien against the church but has not moved to foreclose the property.
Silver, an outspoken critic of alleged corruption in the county, claims the county has slandered “the institution … that has helped more homeless people and families in more significant ways than any other institution” in the area.
The county “has little shelter space available for thousands of homeless, despite millions of dollars it receives from the taxpayers, and because of this failure, most of the homeless have virtually nowhere to live … except Westgate,” according to the complaint in county court.
Silver says Palm Beach County’s interference with the shelter’s operation constitutes a fundamental challenge to the church’s religious right to help the poor.
But Petrick said in an interview, “This has all been dealt with before.”
In May 2009, the 4th District Court of Appeals struck down the church’s plea to nullify the county’s lien against the property.
The appeals court ruled that the church could have easily complied with county ordinances by applying for a permit to run the shelter.
The court cited the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act in ruling that the permit application process did not create an unreasonable hindrance to the church’s efforts to help the homeless. It found that the church’s moral arguments were superfluous, and that the code enforcement department had tried “in vain” to accommodate the church “by repeatedly meeting with church officials and their lawyers to help the church obtain a [permit].”
Silver still sees hypocrisy in the county’s efforts to fine the shelter, however. He claims that while the county was levying fines against the church, county officials were referring homeless people to its shelter.
He adds that during Westgate’s trial in state court, Terry Verner, a code enforcement official who testified against Westgate, was dropping off his homeless ex-brother-in-law at the shelter.
Silver said in a telephone interview that he has verified that a onetime resident of the shelter is the brother of Terry Verner’s ex-wife.
Silver did not neglect the chance to recall corruption cases against Tony Masilotti, Mary McCarty, and Warren Newell, three former county commissioners who are serving federal sentences for bribery and misuse of public office.
He characterizes Palm Beach County government as a “criminal enterprise” and claims that county officials committed perjury in previous trials involving the church. Those cases were dismissed because county officials lied about the scope of the homelessness problem and the availability of shelter, he says.
According to the Department of Children and Families’ annual report, there are about 2,000 vagrants in Palm Beach County.
The annual rate of foreclosures shot up by more than 40 percent in 2009, and more than 100,000 residents in Palm Beach and Broward counties lost their homes, RealtyTrac statistics show.
Enrollment in the federal food stamp program increased by almost 37 percent last year, the department’s report shows.
The county expects the number of homeless people to increase dramatically, as more families sink into financial ruin.
“The continued disproportionate rise in living costs in comparison with the stagnancy of wages is culminating in the inability of a growing number of individuals to achieve and maintain housing stability,” the county says in its “10-year plan” to address homelessness.
Late last year, the county revealed that it will build a new, permanent shelter with a few hundred beds in West Palm Beach.
Westgate Tabernacle continues to work with the county’s Department of Homeless Services and the local Veterans Administration hospital to provide shelter.