Church, city standoff ends over homeless encampment

McMinnville Cooperative Ministries invited church members and supporters to camp out in a "holy tent" event on March 30-31. The church then met a March 31 deadline by the city of McMinnville, Oregon, to no longer have homeless people sleeping in tents on church property. Photo courtesy McMinnville Cooperative Ministries
McMinnville Cooperative Ministries invited church members and supporters to camp out in a "holy tent" event on March 30-31. The church then met a March 31 deadline by the city of McMinnville, Oregon, to no longer have homeless people sleeping in tents on church property. Photo courtesy McMinnville Cooperative Ministries

The heat is off for McMinnville Cooperative Ministries.

The United Methodist-Lutheran church in McMinnville, Oregon, drew complaints from neighbors and the threat of a possible court summons and fines for welcoming homeless people to camp on church property.

The church faced a March 31 deadline to comply with city ordinances that restrict temporary housing.

By removing tents, while still allowing people to use sleeping bags for overnight stays, the church has satisfied city officials.

“They’ve done that, and we’re back to no problem,” said Martha Meeker, city manager.

The Rev. Courtney McHill, United Methodist pastor of the congregation, said the intention was to comply “as little as possible,” while still welcoming homeless people and stepping up advocacy on their behalf.

“We still have (homeless) people on-site,” she said.

McMinnville Cooperative Ministries has kept portable toilets and lockers that it added for people sleeping on church property.

The church had a “holy tent” event the night before the deadline, in which church members and supporters camped either at the church or elsewhere.

McMinnville Cooperative Ministries had been keeping its doors open until late at night to provide shelter, coffee and snacks for those who had nowhere else to go. Last May, the church took another step by ending its practice of making sure church property was cleared when the doors were locked.

Soon homeless people began to pitch tents at the church, eventually leading to neighbors’ complaints and the city’s threat of court action.  The church provided portable toilets and put in conduct rules, which McHill said reduced the complaints.

With others in the community, McHill and fellow church leaders have noted that shelter space and low-income housing are scarce in McMinnville, which is about 35 miles southwest of Portland.

McHill said the church’s work with what it calls its “Everyday Congregation” of homeless people has helped some find jobs and housing and battle addiction.

Church members, she said, built real relationships with the homeless people and came to a better understanding of homelessness.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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