- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

BALTIMORE (AP) | St. Vincent de Paul Church has for roughly the past 20 years declared its surrounding park a sanctuary for homeless people, allowing them to sleep there without being told to move by authorities.

However, as the neighborhood becomes more gentrified, homeless advocates and city officials have become more critical of the church’s effort.

Though tall oaks shade the nearly half-acre space, the almost-bare ground is littered with cigarette butts and wrappers, as well as the occasional dead rat or puddle of vomit.

“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. “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 nearby City Hall. The 167-year-old Roman Catholic church took over the 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, 65, who has led the congregation for 35 years. “That doesn’t sound like Jesus.”

Though the church refuses to close the park to sleepers, as city officials would prefer, St. Vincent de Paul 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 problems.

The church has hired park manager Steve Bosse - a longtime resident of a local homeless shelter who last month started coordinating 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, thinks letting 15 people sleep on the church’s steps allows churchgoers to befriend them.

“We try to earn their trust, and that’s a pretty big deal,” said Mr. Vedella, who was homeless for 11 years.

Baltimore officials are working with St. Vincent de Paul to persuade park dwellers to accept housing because many have dire health prognoses.

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