St. Vincent de Paul Church boasts a 15-story tower that presides over an increasingly gentrified neighborhood bounded by City Hall and the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
And in the church's ground-level park, homeless people seeking sanctuary have found a permanent place to live.
The park owned by the 167-year-old Roman Catholic church is anything but pristine &
which has prompted the concern of homeless advocates and city officials. Though tall oaks shade the nearly half-acre space, the almost-bare ground sports cigarette butts and wrappers, as well as the occasional 11-inch dead rat or puddle of vomit. Dusty wind blows grit between the teeth of those seeking sanctuary.
"I don't believe that anybody should be sleeping in the streets, wherever it is, so I personally don't believe that sleeping outside can ever be a sanctuary," said Diane Glauber, president of Baltimore Homeless Services, the government agency dealing with the city's homeless population, estimated at more than 3,000 people. "From a public health perspective, we don't believe we're meeting the needs of people by encouraging them to sleep on the streets."
Homeless people have slept in the park since the mid-1980s, when Baltimore began enforcing a curfew in a separate plaza facing City Hall. The church took over the nearby park in 2000, defending the space as a sanctuary where homeless people can rest without harassment, in accordance with the early church tradition of offering protection from authorities.
"The only alternative is to tell them, 'If you sleep on our park bench, we're going to have you arrested,'" said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, a 65-year-old priest who has led the congregation for 35 years. "That doesn't sound like Jesus."
Although the church refuses to close the park to sleepers, as city officials would prefer, St. Vincent de Paul's acknowledges problems related to sanitation and substance abuse. The park has not become "what we had intended in the first place," said Audrey Rogers, who is leading parish efforts to address park issues.
So the church hired a park manager &
Steve Bosse, a longtime resident of a local homeless shelter &
who started work last month to coordinate donations, weekly cleanups and an assembly of residents.
Many churches sponsor shelters, but only a handful nationwide invite homeless people to sleep on their grounds permanently. Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City won a 2006 lawsuit allowing homeless people to sleep on its doorstep. And since 2000, Seattle churches and synagogues have taken turns opening their lawns or parking lots to 100-person tent cities.
Joe Vedella, director of homeless ministries at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, says he thinks letting 15 people sleep on his church's steps lets churchgoers befriend them.
"We try to earn their trust, and that's a pretty big deal," said Vedella, who was homeless for 11 years. "They refuse to go any place else right now ... Some people do end up going to shelters."
Baltimore officials are working with St. Vincent de Paul's to persuade park dwellers to accept housing because many have dire health prognoses.
Common Ground, an organization that seeks housing for homeless people, administered a survey this spring that found the park's residents are twice as likely to have a risk factor increasing their mortality than 1,500 other homeless people surveyed nationwide. And sleeping outside exacerbates their poor health, said Becky Kanis, Common Ground's director of innovation.
But the Baltimore church, with up to 350 parishioners attending each week, feels the financial burden of caring for a historic building and does not have the resources for a shelter, so its members are doing their best, Rogers said.
Park residents acknowledge they have health problems, but say they avoid shelters because they often cannot keep their personal possessions and dislike being told what to do.
Eartle Hunt, 61, has suffered from severe pain after the removal of a Vietnam War bullet from behind his right ear. The recent removal of two right toes left him with a limp. He says his health is "my biggest concern," but he avoids shelters to protect his birth certificate and extra clothes.
"I cannot leave this stuff out here," he said.
The church's new park initiatives did not immediately succeed. The first cleanup drew only two participants, despite promises of $5 drugstore gift cards. No park residents joined the proposed assembly the following day.
But parishioners intend to keep promoting new elements of park life.
If the park closed, "where else would we be?" 46-year-old park resident Kim Braxton said through tears. "At least we have a permanent place ... I know it's because of him &
because of Jesus."
A place to find their rest