Oregon Church Sues City That Limited Soup Kitchen Hours

With each new valley facing poor Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, the soup kitchen lines outside St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, have remained steady, with the comfort of a hot meal drawing up to four times the most marginalized in the region to the parish for a week.

At one time, the church was serving meals six days a week, taking on some of the load as other parishes scaled back their programs. Its most popular offer: Friday night pizza.

But starting Jan. 26, a program that the church says was a universally identifiable act of Christian charity suddenly broke the law. Under a city ordinance unanimously approved in the fall, churches in residential areas, including St. Timothy’s, can only serve meals to the needy two days a week. They are also required to obtain a permit.

Two days after the ordinance took effect, St. Timothy’s filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Brookings, a community of 6,000 to 7,000 people nestled along the Pacific southwest coast of Oregon.

The church said the restrictions, prompted by complaints from neighbors about vagrancy, violated its federal constitutional rights to free religious exercise and free speech.

Reverend Bernie Lindley, 54, vicar of St. Timothy’s, said Thursday the order was short-sighted and pointed out that at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in Washington, there were statues of people lining up in a popular soup.

“What the fuck could be more American?” said Father Lindley. “It’s on the National Mall, to cry out loud. We celebrate soup kitchens on the National Mall.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Medford, Oregon, touched on a series of widely publicized disputes across the country between homeless advocates and critics, some of whom share the “not in my backyard” mantra or NIMBY.

Ron Hedenskog, mayor of Brookings and a member of the city council who approved the ordinance, declined to comment Thursday.

City Manager Janell Howard, who Father Lindley said went to high school with him, said in an email Thursday that the city is not commenting on the pending lawsuits.

Brandon Usry, 30, a Navy veteran who lives across the street from the church, said on Thursday that vagrancy in the neighborhood had become particularly acute during the pandemic.

Things got even worse, he said, when the city, under a state of emergency, allowed several homeless people to sleep in cars in the church parking lot.

“We had naked tramps fighting other tramps,” Mr Usry said. “We did drugs in front of kids coming home from school.”

Mail, packages and lawn mowers were stolen from people’s homes, Mr Usry said, adding that there were several schools and a park in the area. He helped circulate a petition that was signed by about 30 people calling for the removal of homeless people from church property – a document the church included in its lawsuit.

“They feel like they’re doing what their lord wants them to do, which is feeding the unlucky and the homeless, which I agree with,” Mr Usry said. “What I disagree with is that they are turning a church into a homeless shelter.”

Mr Usry said he was not callous, but that the safety of area residents had become an afterthought.

“I understand that some people go through tough times,” he said. “I don’t vilify the homeless.

The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon is also named as a plaintiff in the church’s lawsuit.

“It is a central tenet of our faith to offer generous hospitality by feeding, clothing and providing sanitation and medical services to members of the community who are in need,” the diocese said in a Thursday statement. communicated. “We are committed to continuing our ministries despite various attempts by the City to restrict or terminate our right to freely express our faith.”

Father Lindley said the town of Brookings asked the church if it would allow homeless people to sleep in cars in the church parking lot under the emergency ordinance, which he said would has since expired. The order, he said, had limited the number of cars to three.

Two homeless women who previously resided on the church lot had experienced manic episodes and checked into a public psychiatric hospital, he said, acknowledging the police had to intervene on a few occasions.

Father Lindley said the church – which also provides showers for the poor as well as internet access, help with rentals, coronavirus testing and vaccinations, and help with obtaining driver’s licenses – was punished by the city.

Up to 80 people flock to the church on Friday nights for pizza, he said, noting the soup kitchens fill a critical void because food stamps cannot be used to purchase prepared foods.

“It’s like the city wants to be the arbiter of who feeds when,” he said.

But in an Oct. 10 letter to the city, Tina Peters, who lives near the church, said vagrancy in the residential area had become untenable.

“We shouldn’t feel threatened, frightened or frightened in our own parks, beaches and streets,” Ms Peters wrote.

Contacted for further comment on Thursday, Ms Peters said her letter spoke for itself.

“That’s a problem,” she said.