Who owns St. Francis House?
Arupa Chiarini-Freeman
January/February 2003

St. Francis House is the main homeless shelter in Gainesville, located on S. Main Street. Recently a new director was hired by the board which oversees the shelter. Some long-time shelter volunteers, appalled by policy changes they say reflect an undemocratic process, are questioning the motives of the board and the new director.

As questions continue to arise about St. Francis House, some volunteers are asking if an illegally constituted board of directors is now committed to serving the interests of the business community. The bylaws call for staggered three-year terms with members to be re-elected or not at the annual meetings of the general membership each November. That membership is defined as all those who have volunteered work or contributed financially or with supplies to the shelter for the homeless. The last such meeting was held in 2000. No elections were held in 2001 or 2002.

In January 2002 founder and long-time director Bob Tancig left suddenly by a mutual decision with the board of directors. Official statements at the time said only that the board was seeking "new directions." No explanation was ever given of the meaning of that term. In September 2002 Tancig was replaced by James Boggs. Feeling pushed out, volunteers have checked Boggs' background via the internet. An Internet background check reveals that Mr. Boggs is a peculiar choice for the post of executive director of St. Francis House. Boggs was previously employed as executive director of the regional workforce board in Lake City. He resigned in May 2001 amidst allegations that he asked an accountant to alter financial information and harassed staff members. An audit spurred by allegations of financial mismanagement showed the board was short $1.7 million dollars. Of that amount $750,000 was thought to be a past auditing error, while $950,000 was an amount Boggs said would be available from the state. Some programs had to be temporarily cut because of the financial shortage. The shortfall was attributed to financial mismanagement rather than criminal intent, but the result was the same for the clients of the workforce board. Allegations that Boggs harassed staff members were dropped after Boggs agreed to resign (Lake City Reporter, May 4, 2001).

Mr. Boggs was previously employed as the principal of a charter school for at-risk children in Escambia County. Mr. Boggs' career as an educator is discussed in the November 1997 newsletter of Citizens for Community Values, a Pensacola, Florida group dedicated to monitoring and reporting on the activities of the local religious right and can be accessed at http://bellsouth/j/g/ighanc/CCW1_10html. The Lake City Reporter also discussed Boggs' career in Escambia County. "In 1996 Boggs opened the Escambia Charter School, a school for at-risk students. He was the chief executive officer, president and principal of the school until trouble struck in 1997. The Pensacola News Journal reported in December 1997 that former board members and employees said Boggs was spending more money on administration than student services, was focused on the expansion of the school and was not looking out for the best interests of the students. The article also quoted parents of students who believed Boggs did care for students by creating chances for them. Boggs resigned from his position in July 1998 after the Escambia County Commission decided to financially help the school remain open, dropping his $52,000 salary. The school needed the money to help cover a school loan and pay contractors for construction" (Lake City Reporter, May 3, 2001).

Citizens for Community Values claims that Boggs' school operated for substantial periods of time without a curriculum, without textbooks, and with portables that lacked electricity, heat and plumbing, and that teachers were forced to teach creationism (Citizens for Community Values, November 1997).

Before his somewhat checkered career in Escambia County, James Boggs was head of a failed boot camp for juvenile offenders in Georgia, according to Citizens for Community Values, November 1997.

Although Mr. Boggs has his defenders, he clearly has not enjoyed success at managing nonprofit agencies that serve the poor and the disenfranchised, and one is forced to wonder what the St. Francis House board was thinking of when they hired him to be executive director of St. Francis House.

According to Mr. Boggs' own admission to the Gainesville Sun, St. Francis House is changing its focus to families, rather than to the general homeless population, which he points out, correctly, is the responsibility of local government. This is a change that has long been desired by the downtown business community. While St. Francis House changes its focus, and the City Commission sits on its hands, the neediest and most vulnerable citizens of Gainesville are going through one of the hardest winters in recent history with reduced services and an unwelcoming climate at St. Francis House. Volunteers, who are the eyes and ears of the community, are being pushed out by the simple expedient of over-staffing the front desk, so that volunteers no longer have anything to do. On weekends, a police officer stands behind the desk at St. Francis House, at a cost of $200 a day.

Local media have made much of the fact that St. Francis House is offering cold night shelter on nights that the temperature goes below 45 degrees. This is not a change. St. Francis House has always offered cold night shelter. The change lies in the fact that the number of people who will be given cold night shelter has been 'capped' at thirty, and the requirement that shelter seekers have a police clearance is being strictly enforced. On a recent night when the temperature went down into the mid-twenties, a young man sat across the street from St. Francis House, unable to receive shelter because he had lost his photo I.D. and could not get a police clearance. Many of the disabled and the mentally ill homeless, who number in the hundreds, do not even try to be one of the lucky few to receive shelter on bitterly cold nights.

Who owns St. Francis House, a board of directors that has not held elections for two years, or the citizens of Gainesville, who have supported the shelter for many years through their donations and volunteer hours? Who should be making life and death decisions for the neediest citizens of our community - a handful of people meeting behind closed doors, or the elected representatives of the caring citizens of Gainesville?

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