Downtown Raleigh church to ban homeless at night

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2012 

— For years in downtown Raleigh, the homeless camped in bushes outside the brick sanctuary, spread out on cardboard beds beneath the bell tower and wrapped themselves in blankets on the concrete stairs.

One of Raleigh’s oldest churches, Edenton Street United Methodist, had such a reputation for welcoming the city’s poorest citizens that many of them wandered inside for services – sometimes finding their way to jobs, homes and God.

But this week, the church is expected to place No Trespassing signs around its downtown property, barring people between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The homeless in Raleigh lament losing what they call the last safe spot downtown, and they ask if Jesus would shut them out. But for a church with a history of homeless outreach, it’s a decision no one makes lightly.

“We want these folks to have secure safe places at night,” said Senior Pastor Ned Hill, and that’s not provided by allowing the homeless to live “behind the bushes.”

Edenton Street Methodist, which turned 200 last year, took a vote in September among the 75members of its administrative board. Since then, Hill said, the church has had psychiatrist nurses onsite to help the homeless transition. The new rules could take effect this week, though Hill said no church decision is ever final.

Edenton Street’s homeless ministry continues, and funds are available to keep those in desperate financial shape from joining those who live on the street. But the feeling persists among some members that the church is closing its doors to the needy.

Some members object

“This is going to be, for some people, another harm by the church,” said Jim Bailey, 52, who has attended for three years. “You’re taking away a safe place. You hear stories like, ‘We don’t want to go to shelters because we’re not alcoholics or drug addicts, and we don’t want to sleep on the park benches because it’s too dangerous.’ ”

Advocates for ending homelessness estimate 3,300 people experience homelessness in Wake County during a year’s time, including 700 children and 500 veterans. Nightly, the total averages 1,110.

Even with the no-trespassing rule approaching, a half-dozen or more people appeared to have spent the night on the church grounds Monday. On Tuesday morning, blankets and cardboard could be found tucked around many of the church’s corners.

About three years ago, Rob Frohlkin was among them.

With hair long and locked, he played snare drum for change outside the Wake County Courthouse. In those days, he often slept outside the Edenton Street church. One day, he got invited to play a set of real drums in the contemporary worship services.

After a year, he cut his hair, entered rehabilitation, found transitional housing and played drums each Sunday.

Now Frohlkin, 38, lives in California and works as a carpenter. If the no-trespassing rule had taken effect then, “It would have been awful,” he said. “The next thing you know, you’re going to have a police officer up on you, and you’re in the system. Then you’ve got a ticket you can’t pay because you’re homeless.”

Bailey said those church members who oppose posting no-trespassing signs want more time to consider other answers.

The church can’t let people camp on its grounds forever, he said, but as a church that boasts 4,000 members and a $1.8 million pipe organ, there must be more it can do.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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