Westgate Tabernacle Church is again facing off with Palm Beach County code enforcement.
The church that opens its doors to all as a shelter as well as a place of worship, is defying a county order to take down a tent on its property where homeless people sleep.
The citation, which says the church west of West Palm Beach is violating county building codes, said that Westgate needed to take down the tent by Monday. Code enforcement officials will send the case to a special master who will decide if the citation should be enforced with a fine of up to $1,000 a day if the tent remains.
Westgate's leader, Bishop Avis Hill, said he put up the 40-by-60 feet tent because the number of homeless people who have turned to the church for shelter has grown too large. In the few weeks since the tent was put up, as many as 55 men have been sleeping in the tent, he said. Women of all ages and men over 55 sleep inside the church buildings.
"My plans are to leave this tent up until there is no longer a need for it, and that means I will leave it up until the county builds a shelter or Jesus comes," Hill said Monday. "At the rate they are going, Jesus will come first."
Hill said he understands the county's position that the church is not zoned for a large tent where people can sleep. He offered to move the tent to any land the county will provide for Westgate to provide food and shelter for the homeless.
"The problem is tents are not allowed for sleeping purposes. It is not a permitted use in any of the zoning districts," said Terry Verner, director of Palm Beach County Code Enforcement. "We are looking to enforce the codes and make sure what facilities are being provided are safe. And in our opinion, allowing people to sleep in a tent in this fashion is not a safe thing to do."
The confrontation is not the first for the church, which is the only place in the county where a person can walk in off the street and seek shelter for the same night. An ongoing court battle is continuing between Westgate and the county over code violations for several years. So far, the county says Westgate has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Hill contends that the county is simply trying to shut him down.
"They don't want these people here," he said, standing outside the large tent Monday evening. "They always have a way in or out, but when it comes to the homeless, it's always out."
Hill doesn't believe his church is violating the law. He says the assistance his church gives to the homeless is a mission from God.
"Our contention is we are not a business but a church and under the constitution, we have certain rights to worship the Lord under the dictates of our heart," he said. "The purpose of the church is to help people who are hurting."
As Hill led a congregation of dozens of homeless people in evening prayers, Dan Liftman, a staff assistant to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings D- Miramar, stood outside holding a sign that said: "Commissioners are Heartless to the Homeless."
"The county ought to be spending money to put up a real shelter instead of harassing them for trying to do the job," Liftman said. "It's deplorable."
Inside, Patrick Charles, 21, said his mother kicked him out two weeks ago because she didn't believe he was really looking for a job. Since then, he's spent most of his days filling out job applications and most of his nights at Westgate.
The tent is not that comfortable, he said. There are mosquitoes and he sleeps on a bedroll on boards on the ground.
"A lot of people don't have a place to go," he said. "Right now it's hard. People would rather sleep in a tent than behind a dumpster. It's safe here."