Pastor will defy permit requirement for homeless sanctuary FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 18 Aug 1998 19:31:04 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Newsday   August 17, 1998


TOTOWA, N.J. (AP) - The pastor of the United Methodist Church believes that
sheltering the homeless is a traditional church function, and said Monday
he will defy Totowa officials who say the church needs a permit to do so.

"For hundreds of years the church has stood as a refuge and sanctuary for
people in their greatest need," the Rev. Jack Copas said.

The church intends to open a room for homeless people on Sunday.

Totowa, a middle-class borough of about 10,000 people 12 miles north of
Newark, maintains the church must apply to the local zoning board to get a
variance for residential use.

State law and tradition appear to favor the church.

The church is one of about 150 churches and synagogues in New Jersey that
participate in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, said Karen Olson,
founder and national director of the group.

None in New Jersey have ever needed such a variance, said Robert Shannon
Conaway, state director.

The network also pointed to a 1983 decision by a state judge in Hudson
County that found zoning rules cannot be used to keep a church "from
exercising its religious function of providing sanctuary for the homeless."

The houses of worship do not run homeless shelters, but "hospitality
rooms," which are only allowed to be in use 49 days a year, Conaway said.

Under state rules, hospitality rooms can accommodate no more than 14 people
at any one time, and each person cannot stay for more than 14 consecutive
days, Conaway said.

Hospitality room operators are exempt from the requirements for a homeless
shelter, but must meet the sort of health and safety standards of private
homeowners, he said.

Christopher Wolf, A spokesman for the state Department of Community
Affairs, which oversees hospitality rooms and shelters said it appears the
church does not need a variance based on their intent.

Copas said his church would not seek a variance.

"For anyone, a local municipality or anyone else, for someone to say that
the church is using the church for an expanded use is absolutely wrong,"
Copas said.

Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton appeared with Copas at the
church Monday afternoon to voice his solidarity.

The mostly women and children who would stay at the church would get
breakfast, spend the day at the Father English Center in Paterson for
counseling and job training, and then return for dinner, Copas said.
Transportation would be provided for those who need it, and single men
would not be housed, he said.

The network works mainly with families who have lost their housing because
of a lost job or some other tragedy, Conaway said. Families get emergency
clothing and nightly shelter for up to 90 days. To avoid violating the
14-day rule, families are moved weekly, he said.

Totowa fire inspector Allen Delvecchio said it does not matter whether the
church basement is a hospitality room or a homeless shelter, it needs a
residential permit if people are going to sleep there.

"We do have some major safety concerns in this room that they are using,"
Delvecchio said.

Before a residential certificate could be issued, the church would have to
install emergency lighting and improve doors, among other items, Delvecchio

Conaway said the group would try to persuade Totowa that the church can
operate the hospitality room, which he said would have exit signs and
emergency lights.

In addition, all people staying over would have a fire drill, and would be
supervised by at least two volunteers, Conaway said.

Totowa Mayor Jack Masklee did not return a message seeking comment.


FWD 2 of 2 (an earlier article)
FWD  Bergen [County, NJ] Record  August 15, 1998

Blocked in Totowa, group for homeless going to state

By Monsy Alvarado

TOTOWA -- A non-profit organization that's been blocked by
Totowa officials from temporarily housing homeless families at
a church plans to ask the state to intervene.

Robert Shannon Conaway, executive director of The Passaic
County Interfaith Hospitality Network, said Friday that the
network will seek help next week from the Department of
Community Affairs.

"The national chapter has resolved these types of issues in the
past," said Conaway. "This is a misunderstanding between us
and the state."

The organization provides housing for up to 14 families at
churches, synagogues, and parochial school gyms on a weekly

One of the nine churches in the network is the Totowa United
Methodist Church, which planned on beginning its one-week
rotation Aug. 23. But Totowa officials told the organization it
would first have to seek approval from the borough's Planning
Board and obtain a certificate of occupancy.

Conaway said this is the first time the network has faced such a
problem, because it usually operates under the state's emergency
shelter regulations. Under those rules, the network could offer
shelter for 14 days without needing zoning approval.

State officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Churches in Clifton, Wayne, and Little Falls have already
provided housing under the program, which began in June.

Clifton fire official David Meisberger said that although he was
concerned people would be sleeping at two of the city's
churches -- St. Paul's R. C. Church and St. Philip the Apostle --
inspections were made before the homeless arrived.

"We did a joint inspection with the Fire Department, Zoning
Department, and Building Department and we felt all the life
safety concerns were adequate for housing the amount of people
they were requesting," Meisberger said.

The Rev. Jack Copas, the pastor of the Totowa United
Methodist Church, said volunteers had already prepared beds for
their guests at the church, and it would be a "shame" if he had to
turn the homeless away. He suggested that racism, not building
codes and safety concerns, were why borough officials have
blocked the church's plans.

"For hundreds of years churches have been a place of sanctuary.
The church has a right to fulfill its mandate to help those with the
greatest need," he said. "We want to use the church the way
God intended us to use the church."

Residents near the church had varying opinions. Evelyn
Cammilleri of Garfield Place said she wouldn't mind having the
homeless there if they were properly supervised. But Brian Cole
of Washington Place said he does not like the idea of having
homeless people in his neighborhood, even on a temporary

"What bothers me the most is that this is a residential area," Cole
said. "That should be done in the inner cities, not the suburbs."


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