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Church Takes Homeless Aid to 9th Circuit

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - A Ventura church asked the 9th Circuit on Monday to revive a homeless program despite opposition from residents who claim the program is a danger to the community.

Harbor Missionary Church sued the City of San Buenaventura and its officials in May 2014 in L.A. Federal Court, claiming the city violated its religious rights by denying it a permit to provide meals, clothes, laundry, showers and spiritual services to the poor under a program called Operation Embrace .

The city said the church had become a magnet for violent, mentally ill and drug addicted vagrants, in a neighborhood with a day care center and elementary school.

In July, U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real said 60 residents warned of the "serious negative impacts" of the homeless program, and that many residents in the area feared for the "health, safety, and security of their families."

"Many of those neighbors decided to move to the Preble Avenue neighborhood years before Harbor began drawing Ventura's homeless population to the neighborhood by providing homeless services," Real wrote in an order denying the church's motion for a preliminary injunction .

"And unlike Harbor's staff and parishioners, who can leave the neighborhood, those neighbors cannot escape the frequent abusive and threatening confrontations, assaults, vandalism, theft, trespass, drug use, litter, public urination, and other crime that Harbor draws into their neighborhood."

At a Monday morning hearing, Harbor's attorney Lisa M. Freeman asked the court to reverse and uphold her client's religious land use rights.

"By shutting down the church's ministry for the poor and homeless when there are less restrictive means to address its concerns about crime, the city has violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act," said Freeman, with the Encino firm Horvitz & Levy.

The city failed to explain why its police force could not address crime in the area "instead of substantially burdening the church's religious exercise," Freeman said.

Judge Andrew Kleinfeld asked about the impact of the program on the neighborhood.

"Did this problem of people jumping over the fence, chasing the children in the school yard [and] defecating in public stay the same before and after the church started its ministry? Or did it get worse after the church started the homeless program?" Kleinfeld asked.

Freeman said she knew of no incident of anyone chasing kids in the school but said she believed someone had jumped the school fence "once."

She said the church had coordinated with Blanche Reynolds Elementary School to time the program for when school had started and before dismissal. It employed a full-time security guard, and doubled van pickups so that the homeless were not entering the neighborhood on foot, the attorney said.

The church denied service to anyone on a sex offender list and made sure they were transported out of the area, Freeman added.

She said Harbor is willing to settle the matter out of court and that any kind of permit is better than none at all.

"The church wants to minster to the homeless and the poor. It doesn't want a controversy with the neighbors or the city," Freeman said.

Judge Jacqueline Nguyen asked the city's attorney Thomas B. Brown why the city had not done more to reach a compromise with the church.

"Why is outright denial the least restrictive means the city can employ?" Nguyen asked.

Brown said it was "far from clear" that Harbor would have been willing to comply with restrictions to make the neighborhood safer and prevent the "daily abuse that they [the residents] were experiencing over a period of four or five years."

Furthermore, Brown said, evidence showed there were 13 zoning districts in the city where Harbor could build a facility and at least five homeless service providers the church could partner with.

"Is there a facility in one of those districts where the homeless can be cared for in the same way that they're caring for them at the church?" Kleinfeld asked.

"All of those provide it," said Brown, a partner with Burke, Williams & Sorensen, of Oakland.

During her reserve time, Freeman denied that the church was able to partner with other organizations to provide spiritual services.

"Since it was required to close its ministry the church has not been able to minster the way it did before," Freeman said.

Judge Harry Pregerson wondered why the parties could not settle the issue out of court.

"We're a humanitarian nation and we've got to solve these problems together," the Jimmy Carter appointee said, adding that the problem of releasing mentally ill patients to the streets had been "created by government."

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