Faith groups oppose shelter zoning law: NIMBY in San Mateo, CA,

Tom Boland (
Wed, 9 Jun 1999 07:47:39 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  San Jose Mercury News / Local and State - June 1, 1999


     By S.L. Wykes - Mercury News Staff Writer

A coalition of San Mateo churches and synagogues is up in arms about a
proposed city ordinance it says would prevent churches from offering
shelter to the homeless.

   More than 300 people are expected at a meeting Wednesday to discuss the
proposal, which would restrict homeless shelters to commercially zoned
property. Most churches are in residential neighborhoods.

   The proposed law is one of a number of city government reactions to
churches' efforts to help the homeless. Last month, a small church in San
Jose announced it would continue to defy city zoning laws by allowing more
than three dozen homeless people to live in the church's social hall for
another six months.

   In both cases, talks have been taking place among city officials, social
workers, neighborhood groups and religious leaders. The First Christian
Church of San Jose -- Disciples of Christ is grateful for city
administrators' willingness, for the moment, to consider alternatives to
strict zoning enforcement, said church board member Chris Cahill.

   ``They've been very generous with their time,'' she said.

   The San Mateo groups have also been exploring various options. The faith
institutions want to maintain their freedom to be responsive to people's
needs, said the Rev. Steve Haley of the Chalice Christian Church (Disciples
of Christ). He also understands the concerns of neighborhood associations
that led to a package of more than two dozen new policies and ordinances
being passed since 1994 to ensure the safe delivery of social services in
the city.

   Having the National Guard armory as a winter shelter has been a Band-Aid
solution, he said, ``so we're going to have to find something that really
does take care of this need.''

   There is no question that more spaces are needed. Last year, 4,600 men,
women and children walked into social service agencies asking for shelter,
said Tom Roberts, director of San Mateo County's homeless services. On any
given day, there may be as many as 800 people without a place to live.

   More and more, the shelter space that is available -- about 400 beds --
is sought out by families ``fallen on hard times in a tight housing
market,'' Roberts said. ``And once you're out, it's hard to get back in.

   ``By having the churches involved in providing shelter, it's spreading
out wider than just a few providers. There's a whole community involved,
and that can help to start to break down some of the stereotypes and help
people see the face of the problem.''

  Bertha Sanchez of the Home Association of North Central San Mateo, a
group actively involved in pushing for the original package of policies,
says she sees room for discussion. ``I would love to see the churches get
involved in a year-round program that attempts to help get people back on

   People in  San Mateo became concerned when they learned that Richard
Allen Davis, convicted murderer of Polly Klaas, had lived in a San Mateo
halfway house. Among other moves, the city council passed an ordinance
requiring criminal history checks be run on all volunteers to non-profit
programs. The Shelter Network of San Mateo also banned parolees from its

   The city council was about to pass the proposed homeless shelter
ordinance last November, but it granted a delay so more discussion could
occur involving the city, the county and the local churches, organized as
part of Peninsula Interfaith Action.

   Churches have been successfully operating as part-time homeless shelters
in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos for many years.

   The Community Services Agency in Mountain View started its program a
decade ago. Seventeen churches in Mountain View and Los Altos volunteer
their parish halls and gyms, with the agency providing case management for
the sheltered. Volunteers bring meals. The locale changes monthly, with
roughly 10 clients housed at any one time for up to three months.

   On average, the program serves about 55 people each year. ``We've had
incredible community support,'' said the agency's Maureen Wadiak.

The community meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the
Transfiguration Episcopal Church, 3900 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo.


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