When Rev. Katie Grover arrived on a recent morning at Patapsco United Methodist Church, one of two congregations she pastors in the Baltimore area, she was surprised to find a $12,000 citation attached to the door.
According to the citation, the church, located on a busy street in Dundalk, Md., had violated a county regulation that prohibits “non-permitted rooming and boarding” houses by allowing homeless individuals to sleep on church grounds. Patapsco UMC failed “to cease exterior use of property as housing units,” read the inspector’s comments. “People still living in rear of property under tarped area.”
Now the church has to decide by Sunday, Dec. 18, whether to evict homeless individuals from its grounds or pay a $12,000 county fine that would severely strain the small congregation’s lean budget.
Grover is aware that homeless people occasionally take refuge outside the church, either on a bench in front of the church building or a concrete slab where trash bins used to be stored. Two men in particular, Warren and John, have been regularly sleeping outside of the church for the past two years. One has attended a few worship services and once bought a lily from the church in honor of his mother.
To the Methodist minister, allowing those without beds to stay on church property is part of her Christian duty. “We’re just trying to do our business, which is caring for each and every human being,” says Grover. “The best we can do as a church right now is not deny homeless people access to a bench to sleep on.”
Ellen Kobler, deputy director in Baltimore County’s Office of Communications, characterizes the sleeping arrangements differently. Homeless people have made an encampment on church property, she says, explaining that the county defines an encampment as any place a homeless person would sleep, including a bench.
She also notes the $12,000 fine represents the accrual of daily fines: $200 per day, for a time period in excess of 60 days. Prompted by complaints from neighbors, Baltimore County officials inspected Patapsco UMC in June, July, August, and November of this year.
“I want them moved out of here,” Charles Bartko, who lives next to the church, recently told Fox Baltimore. Bartko says one reason he called the county to complain about the homeless was because they “poured urine on his tree,” killing it. Grover says she understands these concerns, adding that her congregation also does not want people urinating in their garden. In fact, Kobler says sanitation was one of the reasons the county pursued the citation, noting that the nightly presence of the homeless created “continuously unsanitary conditions in a residential area.”
But when Grover gets pushback from the community, Grover says she is quick to remind those complaining that they, too, are children of God. “I’m not trying to be adversarial with anyone. We’re just trying to do what a church is called to do, and that’s to love people,” she says. “In Scripture, it talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. Whatever we’ve done to the least of these, it’s as if we’ve done it to Christ himself.”
If Patapsco UMC does not comply with the county and evict the homeless men by Dec. 18, says Grover, the church has been told it will be ordered to pass the $12,000 fine. Such a large sum of money, she says, would “absolutely be a burden” for the small church, which sees between 50 and 75 people in attendance at church services. Grover estimates Patapsco UMC’s operating budget for next year is between $130,000 and $140,000, nearly half of which is earmarked for a desperately needed new heating system.
Grover spoke with the inspector who issued her church the citation, noting that he was “very kind,” and even offered her a few suggestions for compliance. But they “both came to the conclusion that there’s no real good solution in this case.”