First Baptist Church of Alhambra plans to take the city to court after city officials barred the church from housing homeless families, citing city zoning and fire codes.
First Baptist is the second church in the city targeted for participating in Family Promise, a program that provides food and lodging for homeless families through local churches. Last summer the city barred First United Methodist Church from using the church as a resource center for the parents of homeless families to search for jobs and receive training. First United Methodist now helps the program by sending over volunteers and food to First Baptist.
The city claims First Baptist cannot house the homeless families because it is not considered a homeless shelter and violates an Alhambra city ordinance that only allows homeless shelters in two areas in the city.
"You still have to follow the building and the fire codes to house people," Julio Fuentes, Alhambra's city manager, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "You just can't make makeshift housing without obviously adhering to the proper building codes because safety is still an issue."
But Pastor Lee Hamby of First Baptist doesn't see the problem with what the church is trying to do: "We're not going to turn into a homeless shelter, that is not the goal," he said. The goal is a community of churches helping the community."
Rather than a full-time shelter, the church opens its doors to three to five homeless families for one week at a time, four times a year.
The church has tried to comply with city requirements by applying for a permit and fixing fire code violations, but without success. Even after a third meeting this past May, the city has stuck by their decision.
Now the church plans to take the city to court, citing First Amendment rights and laws that protect the use of religious property. California-based Pacific Justice Institute has expressed interest in the case and believes it can be resolved out of court. Also, 17 Alhambra churches have signed a letter to the city in support of First Baptist.
Despite the city's decision, First Baptist Church is continuing with the program and housing families in local apartments, churches outside the city, and other temporary housing. For this week, the church will be paying for their stay at a local motel for a discounted price, which still costs the church $250 per family.
Family Promise, a national non-profit, has opened 181 affiliates since its inception in 1986. Two years ago, current director Karen Roberson and Pastor Ken Fong of Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead started the San Gabriel Valley affiliate.
Family Promise screens homeless families for addictions and domestic violence before allowing them into the program. During the day, families stay at Family Promise's resource center at Evergreen Baptist to search for work and receive job training and counseling. At night, they return to their host church for dinner. Thirty to 50 church members volunteer each week to provide the meals and care for families. At least two volunteers stay with the families each night and some churches even provide movie nights for the kids.
Roberson has seen first-hand how the Family Promise connects the talents and resources of the church communities to the homeless families in need.
One family became homeless after the father lost his job. The man depended on his car to find work as a day laborer. But after the family came to Family Promise, their car broke down. A church member volunteered to fix the car's leaking cooling system, gaskets, and brakes for free. Later, the family moved into a subsidized rehousing program, and a member from a different congregation found work for the father.
Volunteers interact with families and they discover that "homelessness is not something you should tag people with, it's a circumstance that many regular people experience," Roberson said.
Back at First Baptist, Hamby continues to focus on the mission of Family Promise rather than the legal battle.
"The desire is to help, that's what we're here for," said Hamby. "We continue to preach and teach and help people as we can, that is our ministry. Our ministry is not to fight the city."