Church threatened with fines for taking in homeless

(UMNS) The Rev. Courtney McHill couldn’t be prouder of her flock at McMinnville Cooperative Ministries for welcoming homeless people to camp there.

“I’ve never been more sure that we’re moving in the right direction, mission-wise,” said McHill, a United Methodist elder and co-pastor of the church, a joint effort of United Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But the city of McMinnville, Oregon, has had complaints from the church’s neighbors and wants the homeless encampment closed by March 31.

If the church doesn’t meet the deadline, it will get a court summons. It could be fined up to $500 a day for violating zoning ordinances that restrict temporary housing, said Martha Meeker, city manager of McMinnville, about 35 miles southwest of Portland.

Both sides say discussions are underway to avoid court, but the conflict has attracted news media attention, as well as a petition drive in support of the church.

McHill said the church isn’t equipped to be a permanent place for the homeless but doesn’t want to close the encampment until a good alternative is found.

“The waiting list for anything (in shelters or public housing) right now is huge,” she said.

‘Everyday congregation’

McMinnville Community Ministries is a busy place, host to more than two dozen 12-Step program meetings a week, along with worship and other activities.

The church had regularly kept its doors open until 10 p.m., offering shelter, as well as coffee and snacks, to people who had nowhere else to go. But once doors were shut, someone from the church would patrol the campus, making sure everyone had left.

Last spring, McMinnville Cooperative Ministries saw an influx of homeless people, and took to calling the regulars the “Everyday Congregation.” The church council decided that telling people to move along once the doors were closed was inconsistent with the church’s commitment to love and serve all.

“We just stopped making sure people left the property at night,” McHill said.

By June, a homeless person had pitched a tent. Then others did.

McHill said the church built or solidified relationships with those camping out, and came to understand better how limited the homeless services were in McMinnville.

But neighbors complained to the city about noise in general and one particular incident of fighting. In the 10 months since the encampment began, police have had 60 calls for service at “The Co-Op,” as the church is known in McMinnville, and made eight arrests, Meeker said.

McHill believes complaints have dwindled as the church has made adjustments, including moving the encampment farther from the road and planting shrubs as screens for the handful of tents.

The church now requires those staying there to abide by rules, including keeping the noise down, refraining from use of alcohol or drugs on campus and doing chores to help maintain the property.

Pride Jones has been among the 15 or so regulars. He began by painting the mailbox and now has given a fresh coat to much of the church. He attends worship services and now works part-time for a church member. The former convict said he’s turned from drug use and begun to repair relations with family members.

“People were positive with me,” he said of the church. “It worked more than what I was doing. Six months later, I’m clean and I’ve got a job. … It pretty much saved my life, really.”

‘A lot of brainstorming’

McHill said Jones is not alone among the campers in making progress in beating addiction, as well as finding work.

But the city wrote the church in December and again last month, warning about ordinance violations and finally setting the March 31 deadline.

The first letter prompted a Dec. 22 candlelight prayer vigil by McMinnville Cooperative Ministries and its supporters. More recently there’s been an online petition drive, signed by some 1,500 people around the country, asking the city to back off.

In an appearance with McHill on Oregon Public Broadcasting, McMinnville city planning director Doug Montgomery declined to fault the church and said, “It’s a very complex, a very sensitive issue.”

But he reiterated that the city has had complaints about the encampment and added that responding to calls there has put stress on the police department.

Montgomery said in the public radio interview that he’s hopeful a solution can be worked out before March 31. Meeker, in a phone interview, agreed, noting that she and McHill recently met over breakfast.

“I do believe there’s still options on the table,” Meeker said.

McHill said her church and other interested groups are working to find an alternative location for the encampment, but added that a lawyer in the congregation also is considering a challenge to the ordinance.

“There’s a lot of brainstorming happening right now,” she said.

Whatever the outcome, McHill believes the last months have been good for the congregation, bringing a renewed commitment to social justice based on real relationships formed with the homeless.

“I’m just watching that unfold before my eyes,” she said. “It’s really cool to watch community happen in that way.”

Sam Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas.

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