When Rev. Katie Grover arrived on a recent morning at Patapsco United Methodist Church, one of two congregations she pastors in the Baltimore area, she was surprised to find a $12,000 citation attached to the door.
According to the citation, the church, located on a busy street in Dundalk, Md., had violated a county regulation that prohibits “non-permitted rooming and boarding” houses by allowing homeless individuals to sleep on church grounds. Patapsco UMC failed “to cease exterior use of property as housing units,” read the inspector’s comments. “People still living in rear of property under tarped area.”
Now the church has to decide by Sunday, Dec. 18, whether to evict homeless individuals from its grounds or pay a $12,000 county fine that would severely strain the small congregation’s lean budget.
Grover is aware that homeless people occasionally take refuge outside the church, either on a bench in front of the church building or a concrete slab where trash bins used to be stored. Two men in particular, Warren and John, have been regularly sleeping outside of the church for the past two years. One has attended a few worship services and once bought a lily from the church in honor of his mother.
To the Methodist minister, allowing those without beds to stay on church property is part of her Christian duty. “We’re just trying to do our business, which is caring for each and every human being,” says Grover. “The best we can do as a church right now is not deny homeless people access to a bench to sleep on.”
Ellen Kobler, deputy director in Baltimore County’s Office of Communications, characterizes the sleeping arrangements differently. Homeless people have made an encampment on church property, she says, explaining that the county defines an encampment as any place a homeless person would sleep, including a bench.
She also notes the $12,000 fine represents the accrual of daily fines: $200 per day, for a time period in excess of 60 days. Prompted by complaints from neighbors, Baltimore County officials inspected Patapsco UMC in June, July, August, and November of this year.
“I want them moved out of here,” Charles Bartko, who lives next to the church, recently told Fox Baltimore. Bartko says one reason he called the county to complain about the homeless was because they “poured urine on his tree,” killing it. Grover says she understands these concerns, adding that her congregation also does not want people urinating in their garden. In fact, Kobler says sanitation was one of the reasons the county pursued the citation, noting that the nightly presence of the homeless created “continuously unsanitary conditions in a residential area.”
But when Grover gets pushback from the community, Grover says she is quick to remind those complaining that they, too, are children of God. “I’m not trying to be adversarial with anyone. We’re just trying to do what a church is called to do, and that’s to love people,” she says. “In Scripture, it talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. Whatever we’ve done to the least of these, it’s as if we’ve done it to Christ himself.”
If Patapsco UMC does not comply with the county and evict the homeless men by Dec. 18, says Grover, the church has been told it will be ordered to pay the $12,000 fine. Such a large sum of money, she says, would “absolutely be a burden” for the small church, which sees between 50 and 75 people in attendance at church services. Grover estimates Patapsco UMC’s operating budget for next year is between $130,000 and $140,000, nearly half of which is earmarked for a desperately needed new heating system.
Grover spoke with the inspector who issued her church the citation, noting that he was “very kind,” and even offered her a few suggestions for compliance. But they “both came to the conclusion that there’s no real good solution in this case.”
Because Grover is not at the church during the night, when homeless people would sleep there, the county suggested she hire security to stand guard and prevent anyone from accessing the property. They also suggested she ask law enforcement to police the grounds.
Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) says it would be a “terrible idea” for Grover to have local police stand watch over Patapsco UMC. “Sending police to arrest or remove homeless people will not solve the problem, it will only make it worse,” she says. “It is also a terrible misuse of public resources — it is less expensive to solve homelessness through housing and supportive services than to deploy the criminal justice system.”
Encounters between homeless people and law enforcement can often be hostile, and some — including fatal interactions — have been caught on camera and shared on social media. One reason for this hostility is the existence of harsh laws on the books that criminalize homelessness. A key finding of a recent study by the NLCHP found that “laws punishing the life-sustaining conduct of homeless people have increased in every measured category since 2006.” Over the past 10 years, the number of cities that ban living in vehicles has increased by 143 percent.
If Grover didn’t want to have police guard her churchyard, she was told, she could come into compliance with Baltimore county regulations by posting a “No Trespassing” sign. But Grover’s pastoral convictions prevent her from complying with this suggestion. “Who, then, is welcome to the church?”
Though she doesn’t frame it this way, Patapsco UMC’s current struggle with a local government might touch on issues of religious freedom.
“Unfortunately, some local governments are penalizing churches and other faith leaders that are offering help to poor and homeless people as part of their religious mission,” says Foscarinis. In addition to being misguided, she says, these penalties also raise constitutional concerns. “Courts have held that offering help as part of a religious mission is protected by the First Amendment.”
In one notable 2002 ruling, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals found that Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church had a protected right to allow homeless people to sleep on its steps. The court said that the church demonstrated “that its provision of outdoor sleeping space for the homeless effectuates a sincerely held religious belief and therefore is protected under the Free Exercise clause.” Police, therefore, could not kick the homeless off the church steps.
Of course, there are notable differences between that case and Patapsco UMC’s, says Stacey B. Lee, assistant professor of law at Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. “One thing that’s distinguishable is that Fifth Avenue had a specific outreach program for homeless people, and that seems to be very much a part of the church’s stated mission.” The New York church’s program was well-known and was governed by clearly stated rules the homeless had to comply with if they wanted to sleep on its steps. (The program ended in 2011.)
“What seems to be a little bit different here is [Grover] is saying, I’m a decent person, and kicking people out is not what I’m about,” says Lee. But providing shelter for homeless people doesn’t seem to be a central part of the church’s ministry.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church currently has a conference chancellor working on this issue, and Grover expects to receive some more guidance from her leadership in the coming days. For now, she says, the UMC stands behind the Gospel, and its pastors.
Noting the approaching holiday, Grover says she’d be remiss if she didn’t note that the Christian nativity story includes homelessness. “Mary and Joseph gave birth to the Messiah in a stable because there wasn’t any room for them anywhere else.”
The irony is not lost on the Methodist minister. “Here we are in this Christmas season where we celebrate the coming of Christ, and we’re battling whether a person can sleep outside — outside! — on a bench.”