Church Ordered to Stop Giving Homeless People a Warm Place to Stay in Freezing Cold Weather

This past winter, the Apostolic Pentecostal Church in Rockford, Illinois opened a shelter and warming center for the city's homeless. For understandable reasons -- record freezing temperatures and a need for more shelter -- their services were in high demand. Pastor Dave Frederick tells AlterNet that up to 50 people filled the church's pews some nights. They only shut their doors for three days in December, because his wife had a heart attack. 

"Anyone who wanted to spend the night got blankets and pillows. Ladies would make dinner," he says. 

Now, the city's homeless will have to find other arrangements. As Rockford's WIFR 23 News first reported, last week city officials told the Pastor that using the space as a shelter breaks zoning laws. His options include spending a lot of money on renovations or spending a lot of money -- $300,000 -- to buy a new building. 

The only other shelter in town, Rockford Rescue Mission, is often full and doesn't allow alcohol and drugs, so people who drink or do drugs can't go there anyway.

"Everybody that left is back out on the street," says Thomas Stirling, who volunteers at the shelter. "It still drops below freezing at night. It's a really sad thing." 

Pastor Frederick says that they'd found people under bridges, on park benches, and that's likely where they'll return. "What are they going to do? Go back to that bridge? One man is getting a tent and going into the woods." 

Given that the woods, park benches and the undersides of bridges likely do not meet zoning requirements for shelter either, the city's official explanation has raised suspicions. The Pastor thinks they're using the zoning law as a pretext to disperse the homeless from the area.

"To be honest I think Rockford doesn't want to accommodate homeless people. They seem to think that if you accommodate the homeless, they'll come, if you don't accommodate them they'll leave," he says. "Since many have been homeless for years, obviously that's not true."

Attempting to solve homelessness by making life harder for the homeless is common -- and similarly unsuccessful -- around the country. As Adam Peck notes in Think Progress, shutting down the center is one example of a larger pattern of the criminalization of homelessness and poverty. Instead of investing in resources to aid the needy, authorities restrict the activities of homeless people and groups that offer services. Ironically, when they lead to fines and arrests they cost cities much more than it would cost to provide adequate housing.

Laws that ban sitting or lying down in public, camping, and panhandling enable police to move the homeless out of the nice parts of town.  Going after groups who feed or shelter the homeless can serve a similar function, preventing them from assembling in certain spaces. 

In several cities, authorities have cracked down on groups who give out food to the hungry, as Peck points out. In Raleigh, North Carolina volunteers were threatened with arrest over the summer. No one was led away in cuffs, but that's not unprecedented. In 2011, over 20 Food Not Bombs volunteers were arrested when they refused to comply with an ordinance that limited food-sharing in parks to only twice a year. The Mayor called them "food terrorists." 

More than 30 cities now have or have sought to establish laws that restrict food sharing and penalize groups that feed the needy in public places the New York Times reported, even as more Americans go hungry.

The need for shelter in Rockford is dire, according to Pastor Frederick. He says that Rockford, a city 80 miles west of Chicago which is known for cargo shipping and manufacturing, was hit hard by the recession. Those who sought the comfort of the church warming center included a guy with a PhD, a woman with a degree from DePaul, and a man who once owned a roofing company. He points out that the city is hurting itself by not taking care of people who could be productive members of the community if they got a little help. 

"There's so much need, that if they open up another place, it'll just fill up."

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