By Sandy . . . In December of 2019, we wrote a piece featuring missions and shelters around the country that include registrants among those they help. Among those featured was City Walk, a faith-based transition ministry whose motto “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future” is shown as part of their deep-rooted belief system as they minister to those whom most of society has shunned.
What was not known to us at the time of that posting is that City Walk’s home ministry and its executive director Renee Miller were embroiled in an on-going campaign of hatred and discrimination.
City Walk Urban Mission, in Crawfordville, Wakulla County, Florida, was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2012. They began their faith-based transition home ministry in Crawfordville in 2013 and functioned with the blessing of the governmental authorities without any problems for over a year and a half. The address of the mission was accepted as a registerable address for their clients. It is a very modest program, generally sheltering and working with three men at a time. Since 2013, 80 men have availed themselves of the services offered by City Walk. From the onset they were approved by the Wakulla County Planning and Zoning Department as a family care home and told they could accommodate up to six individuals at a time, including staff.
In 2015, their troubles began when a neighbor took it upon himself to out the residents of the home as “sex offenders.” It started with flyers of Florida’s sex offender registry page for one of City Walk’s residents being put up around the house and all over the neighborhood. The home was broken into; windows were broken. Complaints against City Walk to governmental authorities resulted in withdrawal of their approval of the mission’s operation and numerous attempts to shut them down.
Complaints of harassment and vandalism done to their property, however, resulted only in the county sheriff’s department joining in the vendetta against City Walk.
City Walk has filed a lawsuit against Wakulla County, Florida. Some of the points raised are:
- A neighbor turned over the ministry’s trashcan and scattered the trash all around and then filmed the residents picking it up and recorded himself saying, “Look at the trash picking up the trash”; law enforcement did nothing;
- A neighbor built an A-frame swing and put it in the ditch in front of the ministry, declaring it to be a park; this resulted in the county refusing to register any new residents for the ministry, saying it was too close to a park. This was subsequently overturned by the state of Florida and the county ordered to register residents at that address;
- A deputy with the sheriff’s department came into the ministry without a warrant and proceeded to take photographs, trying to find evidence of illegal activity or code violations;
- A sergeant with the sheriff’s department told Ms. Miller, “I hate what you’re doing. I hate who you help. We are watching you . . . I’ll follow you until I find a reason to arrest you.” He further told her, “They [meaning the men in City Walk’s program] have no rights in my opinion. They will always be criminals to me and I have to protect this community from them. I want to see them back where they came from.”
- A building inspector told Ms. Miller, “If you ever say I said this I will deny it. But if you promise not to help any more sex offenders, we’ll promise to leave you alone.”
City Walk’s attorney Noel Sterett, a religious liberty attorney and partner with the Dalton and Tomich Law Firm, said, “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) protects City Walk’s right to serve those God has called them to serve, free from government interference and discrimination.”
Taking the high road, one can feel pity for the neighbors and for local law enforcement that they are so out of touch with reality and so ignorant of the fact that institutions like City Walk provide valuable services that enhance public safety, helping men with criminal pasts become rehabilitated – an important goal of our criminal justice system – and transition back into the community in a healthy and safe manner.
It would appear that the neighbors of City Walk, as well as governmental officials and the sheriff’s department in Wakulla County, Florida, do not care as much for safe and healthy societal transition as they do for the popular persecution of persons who are required to register as sexual offenders.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.