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COURT REPORTER

Compassion on Fifth Avenue [By James Kilpatrick] The church views its overnight guests as God’s children, fallen upon hard times. The city sees them as a bunch of bums who hang around all night and frighten the tourists away.

The city of New York wants to protect its

or supervision for the individuals in the

be sleeping or otherwise lawfully occupying”

vagrant citizens in its way — preferably far away. The Presbyterian Church at 55th Street

encampment.

church property. Police of course may arrest

and Fifth Avenue wants to do good in its way,

“A representative of the church also

wardens may evict unwanted guests. In times

that is, part-time, in small numbers. For the

acknowledged sanitation problems on the

of ice and snow, even resident vagrants may

past six years the public-spirited combatants

steps of the church resulting from the lack

be forcibly removed to a safer, warmer, more

have been arguing about protecting the

of toilet facilities. If one of the homeless

distant accommodation.

undesirables. Last month they wound up in

individuals in the outdoor encampment has

the U.S. Supreme Court on the city’s petition

bathroom needs, that person must either

The Circuit Court was not impressed by

to get the matter settled.

find an all-night toilet or use a small bottle

the city’s argument that the church habitat

or can which is then emptied. The church

has become a public nuisance. The city

The story began 20 years ago, when the

representative stated further that if bottles

has provided “no medical evidence that

church began operating an interior shelter

and cans will not suffice, what ‘homeless

the conduct endangers or injures anyone’s

for a handful of homeless men. One thing

people do is they use newspaper and they fold

health.” Indeed, the city provided no medical

led to another, as things so often do, and

it up ... and they go put it in the trash.’”

evidence that the homeless people who spent

lawbreakers on church premises. Church

the night on church property constituted a

in February 1999 the church expanded its modest enterprise: It began to operate

Church wardens cleaned the premises every

health risk to themselves or to the public at

a second sanctuary outside, on a strip of

day, but sporadic complaints continued of

large.”

church-owned property extending into a

littering and panhandling. There was one

public sidewalk. It would be “a kind of creche

report of a woman soliciting as a prostitute.

scene,” said the pastor, “telling the world that

Thousands of fastidious shoppers had come to

the poor and homeless are welcome and not

town. Tensions mounted.

forgotten in the midst of a world that is deeply

To the church, its hospitality is a protected religious activity. To the city, the church’s practice of having homeless people sleep outdoors, exposed to the elements, without

Just before Christmas in 2001, city authorities

toilet facilities and personal security, “cannot

ran out of patience and sought to evict the

constitute religious ministry in any meaningful

In its petition to the high court, the city

sidewalk tenants — in the middle of the

sense.” To describe the nightly encampments

explains that it tried to accommodate the

night. Lawyers for the church went to court.

in terms of “compassion” or “hospitality” is

efforts of the church to expand its ministry

They want to balance God and mammon. The

“simply an abuse of English usage.”

outside. For the better part of two years,

city wants to throw the bums out, but in a

a period of discovery ensued. It revealed

nice way. Finally, four months ago the U.S.

“an ongoing pattern of anti-social behavior

Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit entered

occurring at the overnight encampment on the

a permanent injunction directing the city to

church steps.

leave the mendicants alone. The freeloaders

concerned with prosperity.”

I come down in the middle of this case. The Fifth Avenue church may have a duty to the homeless. The people of New York have a few rights as well.

are still there, and the city still wants them

(Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent by

“The church acknowledged having had

moved to a much safer, more sanitary,

e-mail to kilpatjj@aol.com.)

problems with individuals in its overnight

obviously healthier and practically invisible

encampment — panhandling, playing loud

location somewhere else.

and using foul language. According to the

In its parting per curiam shot, the circuit

church, such problems occur approximately

court affirmed an injunction against the

once a week. Despite the frequency of these

city. The order will prevent the cops from

incidents, the church provides no security

“dispersing or arresting any person who shall

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COPYRIGHT 2005 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

music, engaging in disruptive behavior

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Compassion on Fifth Avenue