Using Church Land for Homeless Program

by Cindy
(Salt Lake City, UT, USA)

Visitor Question: We have a significant issue with homelessness in our area, and in particular we have many families with children experiencing homelessness.

We are proposing a "Safe Parking" program, where we would place families who have access to a vehicle (car, van, RV, etc.) in a willing church's parking lot. There would be a maximum of five occupied vehicles per property; probably at this time we're talking about five churches in our area.

The major city is very unfriendly to homeless people, and is threatening to apply city ordinances prohibiting camping on private property for more than 10 days.

What protections would churches have to voluntarily allow these folks to stay on their private church parking lots?

Editors Reply: Indeed homelessness among families with children is an urgent problem, especially in cities where there is a brisk (and therefore expensive) market for housing.

We do notice a trend toward cities using existing or new anti-camping ordinances to try to tamp down homeless encampments, and tent camping in general. You are not alone in this.

Since you placed your question on our zoning question and answer page, we are assuming for a minute that this camping provision is part of your zoning ordinance. If so, amending the ordinance is a somewhat lengthy process, usually requiring a public hearing before a planning commission and then a later public hearing at a city council meeting.

However, if both public bodies act promptly and immediately after their public hearings usually required by state law, this could be accomplished in as little as three months.

Let's suppose for a minute that your church and the other participating churches can agree on a possible amendment to the ordinance. It might be as simple as adding a qualifying phrase to the places in your zoning ordinances where churches are mentioned as permitted uses.

For example, you might say that churches may allow no more than five vehicles to camp on their parking lots, notwithstanding the provisions of wherever else in the zoning ordinance or other city ordinance the camping is limited to no more than ten days.

You also might have to agree to some additional review of the circumstances at each church. We are thinking that maybe this would only be acceptable to the city council if there is a requirement for a conditional use permit or special use permit; both of these usually require the same two-step review process required for a rezoning. (This is the same process we described earlier for changing the text of the zoning ordinance.)

If the city is unfriendly to homeless people, you probably will have to mount a major show of people power in order to get any change. Think of it in this way.

You might want to begin with presenting a petition to the city council, with as many signatures as you can possibly gather from among both the church members at participating congregations and other homelessness advocates you may find in your community.

(We have written a page on how to start a petition campaign on this website.)

We strongly recommend gathering a commitment from each church for a number of people who will attend each public hearing, and possibly even the meeting when you will present your petition to the city council. It may not be easy, but think of the potential for each congregation to find 10 people to attend each meeting; then you would have a crowd of 50 at each public meeting.

If it's going to be a really hard fight, you need to think through a social media and traditional media strategy to bring more allies on board. Consider T-shirts for those attending public meetings, as this is an easy visual for boards and commissions to grasp.

Also work hard on enlisting at least one city councilperson to help you champion your cause. Hopefully, that person will understand how community groups can be effective in your setting.

You also might want to find a real estate or land use attorney familiar with state law and especially case law in your area. Or an attorney who is generally sympathetic to social issues also might be helpful.

You also may want to have each participating congregation start to reach out to neighboring residents to head off any knee-jerk negative reaction from the immediately surrounding communities.

In short, we think you will need a campaign to change laws, and if your city government is resistant, that means that you need to work hard to organize and prepare yourselves before you start going public.

Note too that we previously answered a question from a church wanting to build a tiny house village on its property to address homelessness under somewhat different circumstances. Some of that discussion may be helpful.

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