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By Mike Hazlip–
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit earlier this year, Greg Kaiser, senior pastor of Antelope Road Christian Fellowship, partnered with a local nonprofit to provide a place for setting up tents for the homeless, along with meals and access to bathrooms and shower facilities.
Kaiser told The Sentinel in an interview this month that he allowed homeless guests to stay on church property after realizing they had lost access to bathrooms and shower facilities usually available to the public at restaurants and gyms. The church previously helped temporarily shelter homeless during winter months as part of the Homeless Assistance Resource Team’s (HART) winter sanctuary, but Kaiser said he saw an additional need because of shelter-in-place orders.
“With COVID shutting down, Rusch park shutting down, all the gyms where a homeless person can get a cheap gym membership and have access to a shower anytime to stay clean. Those things all went away,” said Kaiser.
Shower facilities at the church were monitored by volunteers with Citrus Heights HART, a local nonprofit that connects homeless people with resources. To reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus, volunteers sterilized shower facilities after each use, and only allowed one guest at a time in the facility.
The availability of bathroom facilities and food and resources drew a number of people to the church seeking shelter in early April. Kaiser held a tent drive that collected 22 tents, according to an announcement on social media.
With tents set up outside the church, the growth of the homeless community in-and-around the church property drew the attention of some neighbors who voiced their concerns.
“This explains the transients encampment setup!” one person wrote on social media. “Are these parolees, sex offenders that we now have living in our neighborhood??”
Kaiser said concern from neighbors was not entirely unfounded, and he understands their perspective. There were some individuals he said he had to ask to leave because they “couldn’t get along” with others, but the pastor believes much of the worry is fear of the unknown and a lack of empathy.
“Anytime there is extreme mental illness, drug abuse –there are all kinds of unpredictable behaviors that people are afraid of, and rightfully so,” said Kaiser.
Although some neighbors and passersby were alarmed at seeing homeless people congregating at the church, Kaiser says they’ve always been around.
“They were already there,” said Kaiser. “They were living in back of a park, they were in a greenbelt somewhere.”
Although many of those camping on church property were peaceful, Kaiser said there were disturbances at night causing neighbors to complain.
“We just could not control night time noise,” he said. “We had too much in and out.”
The church ended its overnight camping early on, but Kaiser said the guests have since returned to seek shelter “in every green belt, behind every business.” Homeless activity around businesses on Auburn Boulevard reportedly decreased significantly during the time camping was available on the church property.
One of the guests waiting to shower earlier this month was Nathaniel, a 22-year-old homeless man who said he was grateful for the help and resources the church provided, but disappointed with the behavior of some individuals.
“I feel like the camping would have gone on a lot longer if they didn’t mess it up for us,” he said, noting syringes and other trash behind.
Kaiser hopes to find a solution that will be agreeable to everyone through creative thinking and problem solving.
“It broke my heart that we had to shut it down, but there’s just no way,” he said. “Reasonable people are calling and saying ‘Hey, I got woken up again at 2 a.m.’”
Despite concerns about the behavior of some of his guests, Kaiser said his faith made the decision clear to open the facilities at the church.
“I did not personally feel like there was any choice when the opportunity was presented to serve people who are in a very messy place,” the pastor said.
“I hope people felt loved by God and loved by Jesus and loved by His people by them getting to stay here for a few weeks. I wish I could have made it work, but I did not see a path forward in the end.”
When asked if he would do it again, Kaiser said yes, but with some changes — like staff to control night time noise levels and enforce community rules.
“The spirit of what happened here was taking risks, trying something that has never been attempted before during an event (COVID-19) that nobody had experienced before,” said Kaiser. “…Will we continue to take risks to serve people in unprecedented situations? Absolutely.”
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