Let churches help the homeless

The Rev. Rick Cole, who lived among the homeless to raise money and learn, waits at the Loaves and Fishes medical clinic.
The Rev. Rick Cole, who lived among the homeless to raise money and learn, waits at the Loaves and Fishes medical clinic. aseng@sacbee.com

In Sacramento as elsewhere, it’s clearly all hands on deck in the continuing quest to end homelessness. Government agencies, community groups and houses of worship all have to be part of the solution.

That’s why a county staff proposal to restrict homeless shelters run by religious groups was so jarring – and caused such consternation. Hearing the protests, county supervisors wisely agreed this week to delay any new regulations.

The county says the intent was to give church-based shelters some protection in the zoning code – which now does not specifically permit them – against complaints from nearby residents and businesses. But that goal somehow got lost in translation because the proposal that emerged was a rather arbitrary restriction limiting such shelters to 125 people and 30 days a year of operation.

When the proposal – part of a broader zoning code rewrite – became public before Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, local religious leaders and homeless advocates rightly reacted with concern. They argued that it would violate federal law prohibiting local governments from unreasonable restrictions on religious activity.

They’re preparing for the coming cold with the Winter Sanctuary Program, a network of more than 30 churches in the city and county that provide shelter. The program can serve 80 to 120 people a night, depending on the host church’s facilities. The latest count, on one night last year, found more than 2,500 homeless people countywide – 1,700 in some kind of shelter, the other 800 on the street, mostly downtown and along the rivers.

By coincidence, as this tempest was happening, the key role of churches was symbolized by the Rev. Rick Cole, the pastor of Capital Christian Center in Rosemont, who began living among the homeless in downtown Sacramento on Sept. 28 to raise awareness – and money.

By Monday, he had met his original goal of $100,000 for the Winter Sanctuary program. As of Friday, the total had topped $140,000 toward his new goal of $150,000. That would be fully half of the overall target of $300,000 to fund winter shelters.

Cole, who leads of a congregation of 4,000, says his time on the streets has given him a much deeper understanding of the homeless and their needs.

He’s seeing firsthand what advocates already know. The homeless population is diverse – including people dealing with financial calamity, those fighting addictions to drugs and alcohol, veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress and the severely mentally ill. They have to be matched with the right programs – transitional housing until people find work, substance-abuse treatment, mental health services, permanent supportive housing. Also, there need to be new initiatives to meet an increase in homeless families and to help the nearly 10 percent who are between 14 and 24.

Emergency housing, especially during the winter, is also essential. While the city and county provide motel vouchers for families and seniors, churches are often the last refuge for the rest.

Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit that coordinates homeless programs and funding, plans to hold a community meeting Friday on how church-run shelters might be regulated. The county is talking to churches. If this kind of outreach had happened earlier, it could have avoided unnecessary alarm.

Yet any revised proposal must not get in the way of the services – and human compassion – that religious groups offer the most vulnerable in our community.