Monday, June 11, 2012

Church Fights City To Give Temporary Housing To Homeless Families

ALHAMBRA - A local church is fighting city zoning and fire codes that Alhambra officials say bar it from being part of a program to house homeless families.

Representatives from Alhambra's First Baptist Church say they want to join with 13 other local host churches in the Family Promise Program, which asks them to host three to five homeless families for one week four times a year as part of the church's charity work.

Alhambra officials say the church cannot house the families because it would be considered a homeless shelter. Based on an ordinance passed by the City Council in June, 2011, First Baptist is not located in an area zoned for a shelter, Director of Development Services Mary Swink said.

Pastor Lee Hamby said the church has been trying to work with the city for months to get clearance to participate in the program, but at a meeting in May were told that doing so would violate city laws.

But Hamby said the city's actions and zoning laws violate the church's First Amendment rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

"The church historically - not just our church, but churches in general - helps people that are poor, who are homeless," Hamby said. "Every case law on this has been ruled in favor of the church based on freedom of religion."

The Family Promise Program is a national nonprofit, founded in 1986, and the San Gabriel branch was founded two years ago by Hamby and Pastor Ken

Fong of Rosemead's Evergreen Baptist Church. While the families rotate between 14 host churches to sleep in, during the days they use the program's resource center to find employment and housing.

Hamby said his church has always helped the homeless, but Family Promise seemed like a more effective way to get them back on track.

"We saw this as a way to really help families go from temporary homelessness back to permanent housing and work and not just be a Band-Aid," Hamby said.

Despite the setback, since the program began in October 2011 First Baptist has twice hosted families using rental apartments and other churches instead of their own. Hamby said he still plans to house families for a third time this month, but will have to put them up in a hotel because of the city's restrictions.

Alhambra City Manager Julio Fuentes said he is willing to work with the church and Family Promise to find a different place to house the families, but that doing so in the church is not legally an option because of both zoning and fire codes.

Fire Chief Bill Walker agreed that the church's building would have to undergo serious alterations to be fire-code compliant for housing families.

"You still have to follow the building and the fire codes to house people," Fuentes said. "You just can't make makeshift housing without obviously adhering to the proper building codes because safety is still an issue."

Fuentes said the city is not against organizations that help the homeless, and said it spent more than $500,000 last year on homeless programs.

But San Gabriel Valley Family Promise Board President Karen Roberson said she thinks hosting the families is no different from a sleepover for the church youth group or an overnight prayer service.

She said she never thought to ask for city permission, and that the other cities she has worked with have shown support for the program. The host churches stretch from Pasadena to Rosemead, including First Baptist Church of Pasadena, South Pasadena Christian Church, Sierra Madre United Methodist Church and Mission Valley Free Methodist Church in San Gabriel.

The cities of Rosemead and Monterey Park have given Family Promise grants, Roberson said.

"Generally we don't ask permission because this is a mission ministry of the churches," she said. "This is part of what churches do." 
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