Church's moral choice: homeless shelter is illegal & costly FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 20 Apr 1999 22:04:27 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  San Jose Mercury News - April 7, 1999 [California, USA]


     Helping homeless is illegal, costly

     By Betty Barnacle, Mercury News Staff Writer

   A tiny downtown San Jose church that two years ago defied the city by
turning its social hall into a homeless shelter now is debating whether to
continue with that act of charity.

   Some members of First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ on South
Fifth Street say they are in an ethical dilemma: The church is following
its teachings to help other people but is breaking San Jose zoning laws by
operating an illegal shelter.

   The shelter is also breaking the church's financial back, church leaders

   The church has scheduled two meetings next week to discuss the issues. A
congregational meeting will be held after the 9:30 a.m. Sunday service, and
on Tuesday, the church elders will vote on whether the Community Homeless
Alliance Ministry (CHAM) may continue using the church's social hall as a
shelter for 50 homeless people, 28 of them children.

   ``Any time you break the law, it's all right with some but not with
others,'' pastor Larry Sweeney said.

   He said about 10 people have left the 50-member congregation over the
shelter issue, but 15 others have joined the church.

   Now he is trying to get out the word that the church needs money.

   ``They (the homeless) are hard financially to support,'' he
acknowledged. ``It's $7,500 for insurance alone. I'm trying to put in a
shower for them, and with our plumbing difficulties, it will cost $4,000.
In an emergency the church was obligated to open its doors. But there is
tension in the church over the issue.''

   The current homeless group is the second to be moved into the social
hall by CHAM. The church and CHAM first defied city housing codes when they
refused to force a group of 46 homeless men, women and children onto the
streets in the winter of 1997, the worst winter in a decade. After a battle
led by the Santa Clara County Council of Churches, the group found places
to live in the community. The housing was subsidized with $400,000 in San
Jose Redevelopment Agency funds set aside for affordable housing.

   ``The board decided to continue the shelter during the (1998) winter,
and the city turned its eyes and let us,'' said Lori Greulich, top lay
officer at First Christian. ``But now it's up for a vote again.''

   Greulich said many people mistakenly think CHAM and the church are the same.

   ``Longtime members have left the church because of CHAM,'' Greulich said.

   Scott Wagers, a CHAM spokesman who finished his studies for the ministry
while the first group was housed at the church and holds a noon Sunday
service at First Christian for the shelter group and other homeless, said
the church is the only place the group has.

   ``I don't know what we will do if the church votes against us on
Tuesday,'' Wagers said. ``There's nowhere else. And the church is following
the Gospel by opening its doors.''

   Greulich said she supports sheltering people from an El Nino winter but
is concerned about an ongoing program.

   ``The church is not a place for housing,'' she said. ``We're not set up
to be a shelter. We have people sleeping on slabs, not cots. We don't have
a trained staff to help them. We have a roof for them, yes, but is it the
best place for these people?''

   She's also worried that the little congregation is $25,000 in debt
because of the increased utility bills and wear and tear caused by the

   ``When we went against the city, there was a huge outcry from the rest
of the churches,'' Greulich said. ``But the support was in words, never in

   The Rev. Vaughn Beckman, a First Christian member and executive director
of the Santa Clara County Council of Churches, said he didn't want the
homeless in the church on a long-term basis.

   Beckman said other organizations in the city, not just the church,
should take on the problems of the homeless.

   Greulich agreed.

   ``We acted in good faith,'' she said. ``But the church can't do it all.
Now it's coming to a crux. If you say no to the shelter, are you being a
good Christian?''


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