No sprinklers required: How one church kept homeless people off church steps (COMMENTARY)

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington D.C., seen during the spring. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington D.C., seen during the spring. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., seen during the spring. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church

WASHINGTON (RNS) St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco is getting bad press this week over a sprinkler system it installed to keep homeless people from sleeping on church grounds.

People are outraged that a church would treat the poor so callously. But St. Mary’s isn’t alone. Many houses of worship all over the country face the question of how to keep safe, welcoming grounds while being compassionate to homeless neighbors sleeping on porches and in doorways.

Here’s what we tried at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.

A couple of months ago, we started a dialogue around how to move people off the porches of the church and assist them in moving on. Over the years, the protected and secluded porches had become sleeping quarters for a dozen or so folks, and it was now out of hand. People were using the grounds as bathroom facilities; others were leaving their belongings in plastic-covered 4-foot high mounds.

The conversation, held in a church committee meeting in January, was contentious. Some felt we had an obligation to offer a place to stay if our neighbors were homeless; others felt it was time to reclaim the building as a place that was clean and safe.

It took us hours to arrive at a decision, but we did. On March 1, no one would be allowed to stay on the porches or use the grounds for storage. We would hire security to help us enforce this decision. And here is what made our decision different: We would meet weekly with anyone who had lived on the porches to help them make the transition.

The good news was that the church has resources to support the changes we were imagining. If anyone wanted to go home, we had the money to buy a bus ticket. If folks needed something, we would do what we could to provide them with it.

So every Tuesday at 7 a.m., a small group of us met with our homeless neighbors for breakfast and discussion. We talked about what it would take to find permanent housing and kept track of commitments.

Six weeks in, when it was time for everyone to be moved to someplace else, we decided that we would continue the community we had formed beyond the March 1 deadline. At our meeting the first week of March, some miracles occurred:

  • Dominique came for the first time and told us he had a job if he could get a bike helmet. (Bob, a parishioner, left the meeting, went to his nearby home and arrived back moments later with a bike helmet.)
  • Ivy told us she had had an interview for a job at Starbucks.
  • Stephen said he was going to interview later that morning for a restaurant job.

Several folks needed help with transportation, so after the meeting Kris, a very committed and active parishioner, put more money on their church-provided transit cards.

After six weeks of support, no one is living on the porches anymore. It wasn’t easy, and we did have challenges. We did have to call the police when Eddie refused to leave his place on the porch. Having to call the police was the single sour note in the trajectory to reclaiming the porches and building an amazing community.

As a pastor, I have had to move people off property in the past. It has always felt punitive and mean. This time it felt different because we gave ample warning; we formed a team to get to know and support everyone individually; we consistently enforced the rules; and we used the resources of the church and the neighborhood to help.

Linda Kaufman is an Episcopalian priest and National Movement Manager for Zero: 2016, an initiative of Community Solutions. Community Solutions has its offices at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Linda Kaufman

Linda Kaufman is an Episcopal priest and national movement manager for Zero: 2016, an initiative of Community Solutions. Community Solutions has its offices at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Linda Kaufman

I am convinced that those individuals who were sleeping on the church porches are better off now than they were in January, before we started.

There is a way to keep safe, clean grounds while helping our homeless neighbors — and it’s both easier and harder than installing sprinkler systems or putting up fences. It requires the investment of time and resources to build relationships, listen and help. The community we formed still gathers at 7 a.m. each Tuesday.

I recently saw Dominique, with his bike helmet. He told me he got the job. Later that day I heard that Ivy got a full-time gig. Herbert and Sonia have a place to live. The miracles keep rolling in.

(Linda Kaufman is an Episcopal priest and national movement manager for Zero: 2016, an initiative of Community Solutions. Community Solutions has its offices at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.)


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Linda Kaufman


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  • This is an awesome story! I really like that you put out legitimate solutions for how you worked with these folks who were in need and also invited them to be a part of your community. This is an excellent example of the church being the church and I appreciate you sharing this.

  • Sometimes I think we forget where those churches came from and who built them. I remember a court decision that challenged a church when a gentleman was arrested for sleeping on a churches steps. The judge ruled that the church was a charitable institution and therefore it should be allowed.

    Let’s face it we basically hate the homeless because they are different than us. Certainly, people should be allowed to sleep, sometimes on church porches, remember the greatest gift churches are given is tax free status. And still rules need to be enforced, the greatest of these rules is to be loving to others. It could be I am the one that is in need of learning to love.

    Let’s get together and sing a round of All Our Welcome, while ignoring the 80 year old woman sleeping on a grate in front of a church.

  • The cultural attack on the homeless would not be happening if the homeless individuals sleeping on doorway landings, loading docks, and in emergency exit doorways….would not leave their morning bowel movements, lice infested garments, rotten lunchmeat packages, cigarette butts, etc……littering the landings and doorway properties of businesses, churches, and gov’ment offices.

  • How would you feel if you couldn’t find a place to go to the bathroom? I’m a middle class white woman and I can stop in any restaurant, public building etc. in an emergency….but the homeless can’t. I hope you never have to experience this.

  • And if homeless people had SAFE places to use the toilet or change their clothes, they wouldn’t leave their feces or soiled clothing on landings and in churchyards. We attack them for being unclean at the same time businesses refuse to let them use their restrooms and many communities cut funding for safe shelter.

  • I believe you are confusing effect and cause — it’s opposite of the direction you think it is.

  • So… provide a portable bathroom like they do for construction sites. And a trashcan. There’s not other options a lot of time.

  • Of course, there are free public washrooms and free storage lockers everywhere for homeless folks. And, everywhere there are butt cans for their cigarettes and litter containers, too.

    People have to pee. If there are no public washrooms, where do you expect them to go?

  • Something about this doesn’t sit right. Are we being asked to cheer because a middle class church fixed its problem with a dozen “folks?” To take nothing from their efforts, the emphasis does not need to be on heroic people who buy helmets and bus tickets. In any city with a sizeable homeless population, if a dozen are removed, others looking for safety and shelter will move in. Then what? DC has 7,000+ homeless people. Feel-good efforts like this are fine, but not where our attention should be.

    And a Hallmark card ending — one bad outcome, everything else is perfect. But what happens when a person loses a job, relapses, has a manic episode? If this article had indicated the church had turned to advocacy for the homeless and the need for a full range of services to meet needs, I would cheer. But as it reads, it seems like they are celebrating being “done” with the problem on their lawn. How many bus tickets will they buy before they too are looking for a sprinkler…

  • This church was fortunate in that the homeless who were sleeping on their porches were employable and just needed temporary help. Some of us in urban settings recall when “our” homeless were welcome to sleep on our porches because they helped keep things clean and kept away those who did not follow the rules of that little community. Sadly, over the course of nearly a decade, “our” homeless were replaced with folks who were mentally ill, substance addicted, or had some other issues that didn’t make for a good community. So we, reluctantly, had to stop the practice. It is sad. What is more sad is that we have riches as a nation to pay outrageous salaries to professional sports players, wage wars, etc. etc. etc. but we cannot seem to find the resources to truly help the chronically homeless, especially when mental health issue or addiction issues are involved.

  • Paula, I agree with you that we should not be celebrating the “fix” of this church’s problem. However, I didn’t feel like we were being asked to celebrate a “done” solution. To me, the 2nd to last paragraph–where the author mentions that the group of homeless persons and parishioners still meets regularly–reads like an exhortation to a cultural shift.

    If we measure this church’s efforts with these few “folks” against advocacy efforts for policy changes, then their efforts may seem short-sighted or negligent. However, if the culture can be shifted toward long “investment of time and resources to build relationships and help” homeless individuals, then many other efforts such as this one might cause widespread change for the better for the homeless populations in DC and beyond. I sure hope so.

  • Paula, good grief, why not cheer! And why not celebrate the success of this church in this local effort? Many smaller efforts add up to larger efforts, and we might find ways to scale some that are found to work on a local level. I see nothing at all here to be negative about.

  • But see people who are homeless are like us. The only difference is they don’t have a place to call home. That’s one of the issues I see, the othering of people without shelter. There but for the grace of God go I.

  • I agree, Amanda. One church cannot be expected to fix the problem for 7,000 homeless people, but maybe their success will inspire other churches to try the same thing.

  • Since when has having somewhere to live or getting full time work at Starbucks constituted a miracle? Can’t help feeling the congregation would hardly think so if it were their kids futures?

  • I think every effort and success in tackling this problem should be celebrated; celebrating them doesn’t mean we think that problem is solved. And I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s response when someone asked her what she would do if she were faced with 500 hungry people and she had only one bowl of rice. She said “I would feed one person.”

  • Please see the News Release by The Gubbio Project at St. Boniface Church in San Francisco. We have offered Scared Sleep and services for un-housed guests for over 10 years and offered sanctuary and community to people living on the streets.

    The help of the staff has been offered to many churches (Roman Catholic and Protestant) including in light of this story the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

  • I’ve never seen free storage lockers for homeless. Certainly not in our city. Due to budget cuts since Republicans want to cut taxes, most of the public restrooms have been closed in our city. Catholic Charities, who feeds lunch to 600 people daily, has a big line for bathrooms. There is a park next to the church where homeless congregate instead of the church. But homeless never leave due to mental problems, drug and alcohol abuse. With 5 military bases nearby, 1/3 are Vets and the numbers are growing.

  • Real christian of you guys. Name the diffrence between poor, broke and homeless people. Then think about what they have in common and tell us all who they have to lean on for help in the wide sceam of things?

  • small things are the seed of change. each of us can only do what we can…i think that the church response is a miracle in and of itself! it is, after all, the institutional church!

  • This is very heart touching, although this is what religious organizations are supposed to do. I just wish all the other religious organization would follow in your footstep. Most homeless people don’t want to be homeless, they just made some bad decision in the past.