James J. Kilpatrick

The church views its overnight guests as God's children, fallen upon hard times. The city sees them as a bunch of bums who hang around all night and frighten the tourists away.

The city of New York wants to protect its vagrant citizens in its way -- preferably far away. The Presbyterian Church at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue wants to do good in its way, that is, part-time, in small numbers. For the past six years the public-spirited combatants have been arguing about protecting the undesirables. Last month they wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court on the city's petition to get the matter settled.

The story began 20 years ago, when the church began operating an interior shelter for a handful of homeless men. One thing led to another, as things so often do, and in February 1999 the church expanded its modest enterprise: It began to operate a second sanctuary outside, on a strip of church-owned property extending into a public sidewalk. It would be "a kind of creche scene," said the pastor, "telling the world that the poor and homeless are welcome and not forgotten in the midst of a world that is deeply concerned with prosperity."

In its petition to the high court, the city explains that it tried to accommodate the efforts of the church to expand its ministry outside. For the better part of two years, a period of discovery ensued. It revealed "an ongoing pattern of anti-social behavior occurring at the overnight encampment on the church steps.

"The church acknowledged having had problems with individuals in its overnight encampment -- panhandling, playing loud music, engaging in disruptive behavior and using foul language. According to the church, such problems occur approximately once a week. Despite the frequency of these incidents, the church provides no security or supervision for the individuals in the encampment.

"A representative of the church also acknowledged sanitation problems on the steps of the church resulting from the lack of toilet facilities. If one of the homeless individuals in the outdoor encampment has bathroom needs, that person must either find an all-night toilet or use a small bottle or can which is then emptied. The church representative stated further that if bottles and cans will not suffice, what 'homeless people do is they use newspaper and they fold it up ... and they go put it in the trash.'"

Church wardens cleaned the premises every day, but sporadic complaints continued of littering and panhandling. There was one report of a woman soliciting as a prostitute. Thousands of fastidious shoppers had come to town. Tensions mounted.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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