Meals for needy irk church's neighbors
by Jenna Davis - Jul. 31, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Every Saturday, Smoky Brazelton goes to CrossRoads United Methodist Church to pray, take communion and eat a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes and bacon.
The breakfast served on the church's front lawn may be the only hot meal some of the 150 homeless or needy people receive that week.
But the morning breakfast could end as early as next week. City officials have ordered the church at 7901 N. Central Ave. to stop serving meals on-site to the homeless or move to a different location because of a zoning ordinance violation. The city intervened after more than 100 residents signed a petition, saying the homeless left trash after the Saturday services and that their presence hurts property values.
Neighbors say the problems began in January when the church partnered with Prodigal's Home, an organization that feeds and cares for the homeless.
"The church is not taking responsibility," said Barbara McDugald, a resident of the neighborhood for 16 years. "It's a problem I don't think they can solve unless they move the location."
Prodigal's Home asked the church for help after being kicked out of several parks and parking lots in the Sunnyslope area, said Mike Ricker, pastor of Prodigal's Home.
Dottie Escobedo-Frank, pastor of CrossRoads, said the progress they've been making with the homeless will be hampered if they have to move to another location.
"If we just pretend they don't exist, that they're not in our neighborhood, they're still going to be there, but they won't be moving forward so quickly," Escobedo-Frank said.
One incident in mid-June involving a homeless man living in a neighbor's alley and looking at pornography "escalated things," Escobedo-Frank said.
About five neighbors met with Councilman Sal DiCiccio earlier this month to voice concerns.
DiCiccio, who represents the area, said neighbors complained about homeless people living in alleys behind their houses, finding pornography and bikes chained to neighborhood gates, among other things.
"The neighborhood has strong, legitimate concerns," DiCiccio said. "I'm all for being a Good Samaritan, but it doesn't excuse you from being a good neighbor."
McDugald said church officials have "turned a very deaf ear to neighbors and they're painting the picture that we're all bigots."
Residents are also concerned that the bus service Prodigal's Home uses to pick up homeless people for the Saturday meal leaves many of them behind.
Prodigal's Home buses out everyone they bring in, said Ricker, adding that only about a quarter of the homeless that attend the services are living on the streets. The rest stay in halfway houses, hotels or "couch surf," he said.
After meeting with DiCiccio, neighbors filed a formal complaint pointing out the church was operating without a proper zoning permit.
The church is violating a zoning ordinance by operating as a charity dining hall in a residential area, said Debra Stark, the city's planning director. Charity dining halls are only allowed to operate in industrial or commercial zoning areas, Stark said.
But Escobedo-Frank said the problem is with the label "charity dining hall" because CrossRoads considers itself a church first.
"To say we can't do the basic part of our faith or to say you can just redefine who we are, it really takes it to another level," Escobedo-Frank said. "Then you're talking about who we are."
The church requested an interpretation of whether or not they are a charity dining hall, which the city agreed to do.
Not everyone is unhappy with the church serving on-site meals to the homeless. Escobedo-Frank said calls and e-mails of support have been pouring in from other Valley churches and residents.
Mary Jo West, who has lived across the street from the church for two years, said the church is "doing what churches are meant to do."
"It would make me sad if our community was considered a community that didn't care and was more concerned with property value or rumors that may or may not be true," West said.
Brazelton, 57, who has spent at least two decades of his life homeless, said Prodigal's Home helped with his drug addiction and helped get him off the streets and into a halfway home.
"They literally saved my life," he said. "I would hate to see anybody cheated of the opportunity to get what I've gotten."
DiCiccio said he and his staff are looking at different locations where the church could serve meals to the homeless.
"The best solution is when the church gets to feed the homeless and the neighbors get to live in peace," DiCiccio said.