UC Merced students and other homeless supporters in front of a Merced church that is offering sanctuary to the homeless. Photo by Barbara Obena.

Church Sanctuary versus NIMBY

It has been more than two months since homeless encampments in the City of Merced were forcibly closed and the “No Camping Ordinance” strictly enforced. Homeless people have been scattered throughout the city and county, subjected to an even more clandestine existence than before. However, a sizable and growing contingent has found a temporary, if tenuous, refuge on the grounds of the Sierra Presbyterian Church.

On October 13, in a show of force geared to media consumption, Merced police and parole officers, accompanied by fire department, emergency ambulance service, city sanitation and other social service personnel evicted the three remaining residents of the Black Rascal Creek encampment, later arresting one of them. The same actions were repeated at the other encampments scattered throughout Merced. The day’s spectacle cost taxpayers $80,000.

This day of reckoning occurred despite more than two years of often heated City Council meetings, city-sponsored homeless committee meetings and actions by formal and informal groups suggesting alternative solutions. Those opposing the evictions included members of faith-based organizations, UC Merced students, formerly homeless persons, the homeless themselves and other concerned individuals. None of their efforts came to fruition, with the city simply disbanding the camps, claiming that existing facilities were underutilized, something that the homeless and their advocates vehemently deny.

Their backs to the wall, the Sierra Presbyterian Church stepped up to the plate, opening its grounds to the homeless, providing room for the homeless tents, and use of its facilities for them, in the Christian tradition of charity and service. Not allowed on the premises were the sexual offenders, known as “290s.”

Lo and behold, this act of Christian kindness unleashed a wave of vitriolic protest against the homeless and the church sanctuary. Irate homeowners attended City Council meetings, lamenting the feared rise in crime, loss of value of their homes and other perceived maladies. They wrote letters to the editor, attacking the church sanctuary. They launched petition campaigns to involve more homeowners. Some made calls to the church dioceses in an attempt to decertify the church elders.

Sadly, many of the homeowners are themselves in danger of homelessness themselves, with looming foreclosures, or find themselves in upside-down mortgages. All of these problems began well before the homeless encampment on the church grounds. Merced has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, as well as sharing with the Central Valley some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

With a little time and patient explaining, the furor over the homeless encampment has died down somewhat. Some of the neighboring homeowners have visited and even brought clothing or food. They are getting to know the homeless as people. A few of the neighbors even see that anyone could become homeless.

What I have observed as a physician providing medical care at the local homeless shelter, at the church sanctuary and previously at the Black Rascal encampment is that the homeless have a sense of community and want to be a part of society. If anything, they know and look out for their neighbors more than most people living in residential neighborhoods. I have certainly appreciated the help when individuals have taken upon themselves to help in bringing particularly ill persons for medical attention or to facilitate the flow of patients to be seen.

Although Merced’s homeless did not participate in the December 9 homeless vigil in Fresno, held in front of the Fresno City Hall, many of them are indeed seeing that local government is the problem. Despite talk of a Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, little is being done for the homeless today—in Merced, or anywhere else for that matter.

The Fresno event celebrated the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to housing. Had they been at the event, the Merced homeless would have been inspired to see homeless people from Fresno, Sacramento and San Jose who are done blaming themselves and are becoming part of the solution, because they are homeless but not helpless. The homeless have much to offer their neighbors. In truth, we are our brother’s keeper.

  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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