So the burden will fall on dozens of nonprofit shelters, who expect a sharp uptick as people look for a warm bed and hot meal.
The Rev. Avis Hill, of Westgate Tabernacle Church in West Palm Beach, said the church offered shelter to 130 people Sunday night. He expects more to seek assistance and worries about whether the church has the resources to keep helping.
"The demand is up, and our donations are 50 percent less than what they were this time last year," Hill said. "With the economy as it is, we have a lot more families with children than we once did. We're just about maxed out."
Complicating the situation is a federal, state and local budget crunch that threatens to cut into already limited resources. And donations to charities and homeless groups in South Florida and around the country are slipping as people struggle to keep up with their own expenses.
Sean Cononie, who operates the Homeless Voice homeless shelter in Hollywood, said he is seeing people who have never been homeless but are struggling with job losses and rising housing costs. Other homeless advocates say they also are seeing an increase in those in need of food for their families.
"The demand is going up exponentially," said Robin Martin, executive director of The Shepherd's Way in Wilton Manors, which provides transitional housing for families. "We are really seeing an increase in the amount of people who need food assistance. It's gotten to the point where we have to restrict the amount of food available to our graduates [families who have left the program and found housing of their own]."
John Holland can be reached at jholland@SunSentinel.com or 954-385-7909.
The scandal-weary “Westgate Tabernacle Church” appears to be making headway. Bolstered by several recent public donations, church leaders are trying to move forward.
But Contact Five's Shannon Cake is digging deeper into the past of a former Westgate minister; a past that still haunts the church today.
Always, it seemed, on the verge of collapse; always asking for help. The historically cash-strapped and fledgling Westgate Tabernacle Church seems to be re-grouping.
“Since you broke the Westgate story, it’s very changed here,” church administrator Stephen Johnson told Channel 5.
“We’ve made the conscious effort of changing Westgate to the church that feeds and assists people on a daily basis and little by little we’ve been weeding out those who should not be here because they’re only using this as a hideaway."
When our cameras showed up at Westgate more than two months ago, Contact 5 was armed with inside information about what many politely called "financial mismanagement" from inside the church.
When our reporters questioned church leader Avis Hill about certain missing money he said, “I don’t know where the money went anymore than you know where the money went.”
For several weeks after Contact 5 broke the story, questions mounted about church donations, irregularities in book keeping and how long they had been going on.
Contact 5 was the only local news team to obtain internal church bank statements. They revealed a 20 thousand dollar donation—intended for the purchase of a new church truck.
Shannon Cake: “Can you tell me if a truck was ever purchased with the donation money?”
Pastor Avis Hill: “To my knowledge, there was never a truck… never a truck titled in the name of Westgate Tabernacle Church.”
Hill and other church leaders point to a former Westgate minister, Alan Clapsaddle. They say he was second in line at the church when the donation was made and according to Pastor Hill, Clapsaddle handled the flow of money in and out of the church at that time.
“It was a very very difficult time for us,” said Westgate attorney Barry Silver. “It’s really tough to see someone who had worked with us, who had been considered a brother… and all of the sudden you realize he wasn’t doing the right thing.”
In a previous statement issued through his lawyer, Clapsaddle said:
“One can question whether or not the best decision was made in choosing to allocate a donation received for the purchase of a refrigerated truck for other purposes, but the decision was made to take care of more pressing needs, including cash for specific individual’s needs, such as diapers and prescription medications.”
According to church leaders, Clapsaddle agreed to reimburse the missing money to Westgate Tabernacle Church. But two months since that promise, they say nothing has been paid.
“I don’t ever expect to see that money,” said Silver. I don’t think he’s in any financial position to pay it.”
And while Westgate leaders are eager to forget about Clapsaddle and focus on the future, Contact 5 started digging deeper into Alan Clapsaddle’s past.
In Jefferson County, Alabama we found two legal complaints filed against Clapsaddle.
One was settled in mediation. It demanded $19,286.68 and accused Mr. Clapsaddle of breach of contract and passing a worthless check.
The judge who heard the second complaint, ordered Clapsaddle to pay $18,664.15 in restitution.
Contact 5 found both of the cases were moving through the Alabama court system at the same time Alan Clapsaddle was spending time at Westgate.
“It really is unbelievable,” said Silver. “It’s really troubling that he was able to do that (in Alabama) and then do it at Westgate…so it’s really troubling. I’m just glad to say that that chapter in the history of Westgate is over.”
Church administrators said they have received several large donations since Contact 5’s investigation. Enough money, they say, to keep the doors open for the next six months. And now, administrators say they’re thankful for Channel Five’s inquiry.
“The nice thing is your story kind of gave us a kick in the pants and made Westgate turn around and take note and become what it was actually supposed to be.”
Added Reporter Notes:
Contact 5 did try reaching Alan Clappsaddle and his attorney for comment on our recent findings. His lawyer said they had no comment.
WESTGATE TABERNACLE CHURCH IS " GOD'S HOUSE " NOT A " FLOP HOUSE " . THE BISHOP AND THE STAFF HERE AT WESTGATE TABERNACLE HELPS THE HOMELESS MEN AND WOMEN 24 HOURS A DAY FOR A WARM PLACE TO STAY. WESTGATE TABERNACLE CHURCH IS A HAND UP CHURCH NOT A HAND OUT OR A HAND DOWN CHURCH LIKE THE COUNTY KEEPS SAYING. THE COUNTY KEEPS SAYING THAT THEY HAVE A BIG PLAN TO END THE HOMELESS ISSUES AND THE PROBLEMS BUT THEY REALLY CAN'T DO IT BECUASE THEY ARE THE ONES WHO BRINGS US THE HOMELESS MEN, WOMEN, AND FAMILIES WITH THERE CHILDRENS.
IF THERE WAS A BIG PLAN TO STOP OR END THE HOMELESSNESS IN PALM BEACH COUNTY THEY SHOULD ALREADY HAVE DONE THE BIG PLAN AND THERE WOULD NOT BE A HOMELESS PROBLEM. ALL IT IS RIGHT NOW IS A 20 YEAR BIG PLAN PIPE DREAM FOR THE COUNTY COMMISSIONER'S AND THE COUNTY OF PALM BEACH AND THE STATE OF FLORIDA. THERE ARE HOMELESS PEOPLE THROUGHOUT THE USA AND NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE HOMELESS PEOPLE BUT WESTGATE TABERNACLE CHURCH DOES AND SO DO GOD. I REALLY THINK THAT THE COMMUNITIES OF FLORIDA SHOULD COME TOGETHER AND HELP OUT THE HOMELESS PEOPLE AND FIND A WAY TO PUT THEM IN THE COMMUNITY AND INTO A HOME OR APARTMENT SO THEY CAN CALL IT HOME INSTEAD OF THE STREETS.
A church in South Florida risks $50 a day in fines from the city of West Palm Beach if it doesn’t remove a large tent on its property and continues to allow homeless people to sleep in it.
The city claims Westgate Tabernacle Church, which erected an outdoor tent because it ran out of indoor space for the homeless ministry, does not have a permit for its tent. Even if it did, city dwelling codes do not allow people to inhabit tents. But the threat is not stopping the church’s leader, Bishop Avis Hill, from continuing the ministry. He says he has no intention of taking the tent down or halting the ministry. He commented, however, to reporters that if the ministry moved to the lawn of City Hall, the local government might realize the need for the homeless ministry in the city.
More than 50 people are sleeping every night in the large tent, which sprawls over 2,400 square feet.
In Palm Beach County, Florida there are no real emergency shelter beds. Westgate Tabernacle provides services for over 100 people per day, sheltering 70 or more people overnight. In a society that shuns the homeless, Westgate Tabernacle accepts all, no matter how wounded or disheveled or confused. But there are rules:
If a person is seeking shelter at Westgate it is expected that they will be doing one of the following during the day:
On our first visit to the church, we met the social worker and the pastor. We met men with aids, a battered woman who came in the previous evening and two fellows who were cooking (they prepare 150 meals 3 times a day with donated food). Westgate distributes free bus passes through the Palm Tran bus pass program and ensures the entitlement and eligibility of each person to this program on a monthly basis. Florida Atlantic University Wellness Center and Oakwood Mental Health Center work with the homeless at Westgate and treat them for free. About one-third are children; about one-third are veterans. The church receives no government funding.
Initially, one of our donors designated a $5,000 gift for Westgate Tabernacle with the restriction that HOT match the donation. A new used van was purchased in October providing a reliable source of much needed transportation for the Church shelter. Additionally, HOT procured a laptop computer for a young woman starting junior college who had been living at the shelter since she saw her mother commit suicide a few years ago. HOT met the need for a battery charger for a wheelchair for a homeless veteran and a security deposit and first and last month’s rent for a young widow and her children.
One of Westgate’s biggest challenges each month is meeting its electric bill. We are getting estimates on insulation and upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment. There are so many ways to help the church shelter. Westgate gets a deal from Sam’s Club for prescriptions and diapers– half price – but they need $25,000 annually to pay for them. They need a commercial washer and dryer, shelving, folding chairs, plumbing and more.
Westgate Tabernacle Church in Palm Beach County is providing food and shelter for up to 150 people per night. The church provides 500 meals per day of donated food and pays $1000 every month for water. This commendable act should be supported by the county but instead the county is threatening the church with a $1000 per day fine. At issue is a forty-foot by sixty-foot tent the church has erected to help provide shelter for too many homeless men, women and children.
The tent can accommodate a maximum of about seventy five men sleeping on plywood sheets raised a few inches above the ground. Women and small children sleep in two small rooms – 400 square feet and 240 square feet – on collapsible bunk beds. Men fifty-five years old and younger sleep in the tent and everyone else that can be sheltered sleeps in the 2400 square foot sanctuary.
Bishop Avis Hill has been with Westgate Tabernacle for thirteen years and has had opposition from Palm Beach County for seven years. They cannot get a permit for the tent because the code is written only for permanent structures with the required amenities. However, the County Commission could support the church’s efforts by writing them a special exception through the Zoning Board. Any legal help that the county can give should be given because the homeless population is so underserved. The county even sends people to the church that they have no room for. There are other programs but they are inadequate, and the people that do not meet the criteria or there is no room come to Westgate Tabernacle.
The 2007 Annual Report on Homelessness Conditions in Florida released by the Department of Children and Families Office on Homelessness shows that 60,168 homeless were counted in Florida and 1,766 in Palm Beach County. This number was provided by twenty five coalitions throughout the state including the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County. In 2006 there were 32,000 beds available to the homeless population from shelters, and transitional and permanent housing. That is an increase of about 2,500 beds since 2003 but still leaves out over 25,000 unsheltered homeless in Florida.
Most of the homeless are men under the age of sixty and nearly half with one or more disabling conditions. About one-quarter of the homeless population can be considered chronically homeless having four or more episodes of homelessness. Two-thirds of homeless people are homeless for more than three months and about forty percent for a year or more. Sixty-eight percent of homeless live in their local communities for more than a year. Most troubling are homeless families with women and children trying to stay together. Thirty-five percent of homeless are female and twenty-one percent are children under the age of eighteen.
Bishop Hill is understandably frustrated with his situation. He said that “this is a heartless generation that cares more for animals than people” and that illegal aliens get better treatment from the state and county than citizens. That is not right – we should be putting our citizens first. Still, there are many people who do care enough to give and get involved and progress is being made. Westgate Tabernacle is located at 1722 Suwanee Drive, West Palm Beach, Florida, 33409, and their phone number is (561) 471-9309.
We all have them on our lists: people who have everything. Anything you buy them will probably get put in a closet or on a shelf, and never be seen again. Wouldn’t it be great to give people a really meaningful gift? How about a gift in their name to a group of people who are doing what we should all be doing: helping the poor. If we don’t think of following Jesus’ command to help others less fortunate than us at Christmas time, when will we?
Normally I write about subjects of national and international significance. The nature of our work is such that normally state and local issues are not appropriate. But sometimes the Lord puts something on my heart to write about that doesn’t fit my mold, and I must obey. Westgate Tabernacle Church is strongly on my heart today.
Westgate Tabernacle was founded in 1929, and has been helping people ever since. In 1998, God led this church to do what churches used to do: minister to the poor, the hungry and the homeless. Some churches around the nation are still involved in this type of ministry, but by and large churches today have bought into the “Let the Government do it” mentality.
The problem is that in Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the richest counties in the nation, the government has abdicated its responsibilities. Westgate Tabernacle is doing what the people of the county think their tax dollars are paying for. The government does next to nothing for the homeless, but it spends time and money persecuting the only homeless shelter in the area that will accept anyone in need.
The County has levied over $45,000 in fines against this small church that ministers to hundreds every day, and interest continues to mount. Often the fines have been ones that increase every day that the church does not “comply.”
One wonders what regulations the church should “comply” with. Should they comply with Jesus’ command to feed the hungry and clothe the poor? Or should they comply with zoning regulations that don’t recognize the church as a regular homeless shelter? It really comes down to an issue of religious freedom.
Should the government be allowed to restrict the freedom of a church to follow the commandments of the Bible in cases where safety is not an issue? Should a rich county that has thousands of employees, but is not willing to devote resources to the poor and homeless, be allowed to persecute the only group that is willing to help. Should the government, whose police officers drop homeless people off at Westgate Tabernacle because there is no place else to take them, be spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars suing and threatening the people who accept the people that government employees leave on their doorstep? (When homeless people call the Palm Beach County crisis hotline, they are referred to Westgate Tabernacle for shelter!)
And what ever happened to the centuries-old concept, honored by every civilized nation on earth, of churches as places of sanctuary? The one place where everyone should feel safe is in a church. The government constantly talks about “separation of church and state”, as if there were some danger of the church taking over the government. But the fact is that our founding documents only describe protecting the free exercise of religion FROM the state. Where is that protection from government interference in religion for Westgate Tabernacle?
In addition to the persecution and harassment the ministry receives from the government, the church also faces a huge financial operating burden. During a recent cold spell 150 people a night slept there. According to an article in the Palm Beach Post (see LINK below), “Westgate provides help with clothing, prescriptions, spirituality, hygiene and even serves three meals a day.” The cost for all this averages $18,000 per month. As a pastor of a small church myself, I know that the members of the church cannot give that kind of money.
So it’s up to people who care about people, people who want to obey Christ’s commands, to take up the slack. One way to do so would be to go to the web and make a donation (see LINK below: “Make a Donation to Westgate Tabernacle”). Another would be to mail a check to Westgate Tabernacle Church, 1722 Suwanee Drive, West Palm Beach, Florida 33409. Or you may want to call the pastors, Avis and Sherry Hill at 561-471-9309 and ask about other ways you can help. If you don’t have money, you might have skills or abilities that would be valuable.
I have met Pastors Avis and SherryHill at local pastors’ meetings, and can vouch for the fact that any money you give will be used to help feed, clothe, shelter and care for homeless people, and to minister to their spiritual needs.
Once again I quote from the Palm Beach Post article: “Westgate is already embroiled in a legal fight with the county over its ministry. The church's overnight population breaks about every county zoning code known to man, although it would be hard to shut down the one place in the county that's truly a homeless shelter. Other than Westgate, there is no other place that will take everyone and anyone. It's just that simple. But it's not equipped for all these people sleeping and showering and sharing their meals.”
One interesting aspect of this ministry is that, although the church is a non-denominational Christian ministry, the lawyer who has ably defended the church against the draconian attacks of county officials is a rabbi. Boca Raton attorney and Jewish Rabbi Barry Silver was forced to stop playing defense and go on the offense with a lawsuit in December, 2005, because the county refused to negotiate the huge fines they had levied against the church.
In his motion Silver stated, “The record evidence is undisputed that Westgate Tabernacle, Avis Hill and Sherry Hill are acting in furtherance of their belief in Christianity in housing and assisting the homeless, and that their ability to freely practice their religion is being unreasonably burdened by the Defendant in violation of RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and 42 U.S.C. 1983, and that as a result of these violations of their civil rights, the Plaintiffs and the public has been harmed.”
One item I found on the website of Westgate Tabernacle (see LINK below) particularly moved me. Entitled “SHAME ON PALM BEACH COUNTY”, it featured a picture of a tiny coffin, accompanied by these words: “Little Marcellus was buried on November 9th, 2006. He only lived for 5 minutes. This child did not have to die. His death was caused by a county and a social service system that is underfunded, overtaxed, and indifferent. His mother and father were both homeless, suffering from mental illness and substance addiction. Both had been in and out of mental health facilities and discharged with no real follow-up plan. They did not show up for his funeral.”
My nine-year-old, Sarah, always begs me to stop and give money to every person holding a “Homeless” sign on a piece of cardboard. I have explained to her (as many of you have to your children) that some people who ask for money like this are doing it to get money for drugs or alcohol. We teach her that we need to listen to the Lord to know which people we should give to, and which we should not.
Many people think that this applies to ALL homeless people. “Why should I give my hard-earned dollars to a homeless ministry, when the only reason most people are homeless is that they are drunks or addicts?” On the webpage I have titled “The Mission of Westgate Tabernacle” (see LINK below), I found an interesting list of some of the people the church serves:
You can see that the stereotypes that most people have about the homeless are just that – stereotypes. Putting people in pigeonholes with negative labels lets us ignore their plight, because we can deem them “not worthy” of our help.
But “There but for the grace of God go I” comes really close to home when you consider the real homeless. Many people reading this are in such precarious financial condition that the loss of a job and going without pay for a month or two could put them on the streets. Others, who think they are financially secure, could have their finances devastated by a serious illness (even if they have health insurance), and become homeless. I have met people who have experienced what I have just described.
Are there some who scam the system? Of course. But wouldn’t you rather have some of your money go to feed an alcoholic who could work but chooses not to, in order to ensure that innocent children don’t go to sleep hungry on a park bench?
As I close, I would like to recommend to you an October, 2002 article by Conservative Truth author and friend John Schmidt, which can be found on his personal website (see LINK below). With his permission, I would also like to quote from the article, entitled “Permits More Important than People”:
“Westgate and Palm Beach County have an opportunity to show a compassionate side. Property values, and the efforts of community leaders over the years to clean up the area are valid reasons to be concerned. But in their quest to build a better place to live, is it possible they might produce the very opposite result: a community where people won’t lift a finger to help others in need? The only thing colder than a closed and gated community is a closed and gated heart.”
Publisher, Editor, Conservative Truth
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A bishop whose church is at the center of a battle with Palm Beach County for using a tent to house the homeless said Tuesday he would challenge a controversial county commissioner for her seat.
Bishop Avis Hill of Westgate Tabernacle Church said he would run against Addie Greene as a write-in candidate in the November election. The announcement came during Tuesday’s county commission meeting and one day after officials voted to begin fining the church for violating zoning regulations.
Westgate Tabernacle Church has until Nov. 10 to remove a 2,400-square-foot tent or face a $50 per day fine. Code enforcement officials said a permit is required for a tent of its size, but land development codes do not allow a tent for housing purposes.
The church has already been fined $250 for violating existing zoning regulations.
Hill has been outspoken in his refusal to take down the tent. Earlier this month, Hill said he would take down the tent when the county solves the homeless problem or “when Jesus comes, and it looks like Jesus is going to arrive before the county gets this accomplished.”
“I have no intentions (of) taking the tent down,” Hill told WPBF News 25 on Monday. “There is no other place in this county for them to go. Where shall I take them? Down to the county commission, let them sleep in the courthouse? The police would put them all in jail if I brought them down there, but I just may bring them on down there and set some tents up on the courthouse yard.”
Greene is also no stranger to controversy. The Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association called for her removal last month after she referred to the fatal shooting of a teenager by a sheriff’s deputy as “murder.”
She said she made the comments after receiving hate mail at her commission office, which included a newspaper photograph of the 16-year-old boy. Next to the teen’s picture were the words “Good Riddance” written in.
A spokesman for the supervisor of elections office said Hill is not eligible to be a write-in candidate under Florida law because the deadline was June 20.
Greene is being challenged by Liz Wade on the Nov. 4 ballot.