California church stands up for the homeless

October 23, 2002

The people of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California, have decided to take a stand for those who are homeless in their community--even if the El Cajon City Council throws the book at them for doing it.

The congregation has been actively involved in the political arena and on a practical level to bring services for those who are homeless to El Cajon.

El Cajon borders San Diego and St. Alban's is part of the Diocese of San Diego. Although there are services for the homeless in San Diego, there are none within the city limits of El Cajon, or in several other nearby communities. There are many people without homes who sleep in the parks and on the streets of the community.

Over the summer, the rector of St. Alban's, the Rev. John Conrad, installed a portable toilet near the church to provide a bathroom facility for the homeless people to use. The city government objected and the toilet was removed. Conrad went before the City Council with a request for the city to open a shelter to serve the needs of the homeless. During the meeting, Conrad said, 'The teachings of Jesus are simply unambiguous on this matter. You must help the poor.' The City Council passed a non-binding resolution to open two shelters: one for families and one for single individuals. However, no further action was taken.

The people of St. Alban's then opened the bathrooms in their parish hall for homeless people to use during the night. This resulted in several homeless individuals setting up a camp on an adjacent vacant lot owned by the church. City government and several of the church's neighbors again objected to their presence. Conrad and his congregation agreed to work with several social services agencies to relocate the individuals after the city threatened to revoke the church's conditional use permit. However, Conrad pointed out, 'This problem is not over. A long term solution is going to require the El Cajon City Council to establish year round facilities and a comprehensive program.' The people of St. Alban's have committed themselves to being advocates for 'a real solution.'

A question of how

This fall, the leaders and people of several other nearby churches have joined the effort to find a long-term solution. In a special meeting of the congregation on October 9, eight other churches volunteered to help and three pastors spoke at the meeting. A parishioner of St. Alban's said, 'This is not a question of whether we will support the homeless, it is a question of how.'

As political efforts have not made any progress towards actual facilities, another group of homeless people have begun to camp around the church. On October 22 the City Council voted unanimously to wait one week before seeking a court injunction against the church and its campers for potential municipal code violations. City Attorney Morgan Foley said that violations might include noise violations, trespassing on private property and public urination and defecation.

After the vote, Conrad reiterated his vow not to move any of the homeless until the city provided them with real shelter and services. He has installed another portable toilet at the camp to remove any health-code violations. 'The very moment there is alternative shelter, I will direct [the homeless] there and physically move them myself if I have to,' Conrad said.