Bonita Springs – “This is certainly not how I ever thought people would come to know my name,” said Jeanne Watson of BSafe Bonita, as she sat in a booth at Perkins restaurant on Beach Road.
Sitting quietly next to Watson was her three year old, enjoying his bribe of French fries and watching an iPad movie while his mom talked about a topic that preoccupies her and many others around Bonita these days, St. Matthew’s House proposed homeless shelter on Old 41 just north of the Center for the Arts.
“My children are the most important thing to me in the world,” said Watson. “I feel their security is compromised if this goes through.”
Watson is co-founder of BSafe Bonita, a non-profit group of hundreds of area residents that has emerged as a principal opponent of the St Matthew’s House plan. Watson left a career with Johnson and Johnson to move to Bonita with her family seven years ago. She holds a masters degree in international business management and studied psychology as an undergraduate.
“I believe that Vann has good intentions in his heart,” said Watson, referring to Vann Ellison, the chief executive of St. Matthew’s House. “Most people don’t agree with me on that.”
“I think he is probably blinded by the good he can do for some people, blinded to the harm he can do to other people. I don’t believe they understand how much this is affecting people’s lives and how upset people are. I think he is extremely passionate about what he does.”
When asked, sitting in his office on Airport Road, Vann Ellison agreed that, yes, he is passionate. After college Ellison studied to be a minister, and has spent his 28-year career “as a Christian guy working in a secular field trying to bring back broken folks.”
“I am motivated, I am driven by our mission”, said Ellison. “I believe God called us to help the poor and the less fortunate in a reasonable way. We don’t believe in a sloppy program where you allow people anything.
Enabling does not help drug addicts get sober, does not help homeless people get their lives together. We are as tightly structured a program as you can find anywhere.”
Watson and Ellison are central figures in the latest iteration of St. Matthew’s House quest for a homeless shelter in Bonita. They spoke with the Spotlight in separate extended interviews about their assessment of the situation.
“There is a complete lack of trust on both sides,” was Ellison’s frank feeling, a view that is not disputed.
Several issues surround the proposed shelter. But perhaps the most significant question is what would appear the simplest. Exactly how big will it be?
That has been an area of contention and a source of confusion.
On April 17, a land use application for a St. Matthew’s House facility was filed with the City’s community development department.
The application proposed, “a 260-bed homeless shelter facility will be developed in phases with the first phase consisting of 126 beds.”
Shortly after the application for a 260-bed shelter was filed a published report appeared in a regional newspaper.
What Ellison wanted, it stated, was a 62-bed shelter for single women and children.
Fort Myers social service providers were quoted as extolling its small size and use. The proposed shelter could support about 120 beds, the report stated.
“My honest take is that they are trying to sell the project by saying 60 beds,” Watson told the Spotlight.
“They want buy in from the community so they are saying what they think people will accept, which would be 60 beds for women and children. That is not very threatening, especially if it is run properly. If it were an appropriate size, with women and children, it is something I myself would want to be involved with.”
“In my honest opinion, it’s a sales technique. That’s all it is.”
While Ellison takes exception to that view (he has been advocating for a smaller shelter for two years, he said), “I know that we have caused some of our own problems,” he said.
“When we say we are going to open with a 60-bed shelter, and we submit plans for a 260-bed shelter, I know that puts us in a situation where I can’t defend that. I wish we had not created any appearance or illusion that we are going to be something that we are not.”
“Just because we are permitted to have something does not mean we have to have it. I don’t want to manage a 260 bed facility and there is no need for a 260 bed facility in Bonita Springs.”
In mid-May, an amended land use application was filed, which if approved would entitle St. Matthew’s to a 168-bed shelter. The first building phase would include up to 84 beds, according to the amended application.
“For two years we are willing to cap the number at 60 for female and family residents,” said Ellison. “We keep trying to adapt to the needs of the community.”
After a track record is established, he believes, “People will say, “What were we so irrational about?”
The 60-bed shelter for women and children was a topic at two meetings earlier in the month when Ellison, St. Matthew’s board chair Rick Fumo and board member Joe Trachtenberg travelled to Bonita. The first, with Mayor Ben Nelson Jr. and City Manager Carl Schwing, was held at the offices of Nelson Marine.
“When they left, I was just disappointed,” said Nelson. “They seemed angry. They seemed angry with our community. I thought, ‘How is that going to work out?’”
Ellison too was disappointed
“They were asking us, “Will you negotiate against yourself?’” he said.
“We were told we could not be promised any City Council support… That is as weak and timid a response as you can get, and we gave a timid response as well.”
The next stop that day for Ellison and his colleagues was the clubhouse at Cedar Creek, where they met with Jeanne Watson and other BSafe leaders.
“A minister in our neighborhood had spoken with Vann,” said Watson, “and they decided it would be a good idea to get both parties together to put things in writing, that Vann wanted to compromise and would be ok with a small shelter for women and children.”
But the Cedar Creek meeting devolved into argument early on over the presence of BSafe’s attorney, whose identity was not disclosed at the start of the meeting. That argument affected the ability to get things done, according to participants.
The St. Matthew’s contingent was unwilling to “put anything in writing,” said Watson. “We were told they have no way to anticipate what the need would be when it opens or in ten years or in 20 years. Based on that they will not limit themselves to women and children. So it’s a bait and switch.”
Ellison offered a different perspective. “Jeanne and Greg (Greg Coury, a leader of BSafe) said, ‘I can tell you my view, but I don’t know that it will satisfy our group. I don’t know what BSafe will do.’” As with the City meeting, Ellison believed he was being asked to negotiate against himself. “I don’t trust the City leadership and I don’t trust the BSafe leadership that they are going to support us if we gave them everything they wanted,” he said.
In late May, the City sponsored the formation of a “task force” comprised of representatives selected by BSafe and St. Matthew’s House, as well as city representatives.
Their meetings are closed to the public. Margaret Banyan of Florida Gulf Coast University is the “facilitator.”
Among the agenda items for their first meeting, held at the Bonita Grande Fire House, were “identification of common issues and concerns” and “expected outcomes of the task force.”
“I hope we can make some progress,” said Ellison. “Are we going to come up with a consensus that everybody endorses? I doubt it.”
Of Banyan, he said, “she has a Herculean task in front of her.”
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