There is a controversy right here on our neighborhood, but it could easily be your neighborhood, too. It is a controversy that calls into question many things, from our personal values, to our ability to look beyond ourselves, to our individual futures. Like so many things these days, this controversy has become very complicated -- lawyers and city ordinances, and their inherent gobbled-gook, are involved -- but it boils down to a simple question.
What would you do?
Yes, it is a question a five-year-old would ask, but I often think the world would be a better place if five-year-olds were asking the questions.
Our controversy involves a church on a street corner. It is a simple church with a pretty white steeple. The church is called Harbor Community Church. Harbor Community Church is next door to Blanche Reynolds Elementary School here in Ventura.
A pretty church on a neighborhood street corner is all well and good. It is a piece of America, and a part of our country's constitution that allows for so many important freedoms. Few would protest a church on a neighborhood street corner. The problem, in the minds of some, is Harbor Community Church's Operation Embrace, which provides meals, showers, counseling, and other drop-in services to the homeless. To partake in Operation Embrace the homeless have to come to the church, and so they do. Some of the neighbors don't like it. What they don't like varies. Neighbors say there have been break-ins, fights in the street, dog attacks, and needles left in an adjacent park. Yesterday I did have to stop in the middle of the street because that's where a homeless woman stood, resting on a shopping cart and glaring at the cars as if they were driving on the sidewalk. I went around her. The car behind me did too, but not before shouting and giving her the finger.
The biggest problem, say opponents, is the church is right next to an elementary school. Neighbors claim the homeless have already wandered on to the school campus.
Harbor Community Church sees its duty simply; to fulfill its Christian mission of helping the community's poorest.
Most neighbors -- and we know some of them, having lived in this neighborhood for 21 years -- have adopted a not unusual outlook. They support what they church is doing, but they don't support where they are doing it.
"My concern is, is the city really listening to the neighbors' concerns," said a woman who lives across the street from Blanche Reynolds Elementary School. "I ask all of them, would you want it in your neighborhood?"
We all know the answer to that.
Operation Embrace serves breakfast. So the other day I walked to the church. It is roughly a half-mile away. I know the way. I walked our two sons to the elementary school every day.
I stood across the street watching as people trickled into the church. They pushed carts. They wore two and three jackets. Some talked to themselves.
A man holding a rake stood beside me. We watched quietly. The man turned to me. Accurately assessing my Spanish skills, he spoke a single word.
"Desamparado," he said.
This translates to abandoned, deserted, helpless, or forsaken. I looked it up.
We stood watching for a little longer -- Harbor Community serves an estimated 80 attendees a day -- and then we both went back to work, something I never take for granted.
Reverend Sam Gallucci, who started Operation Embrace in 2008 (the church has been on this corner since 2004), seems like a reasoned man in a tough spot. In a letter to the community published in the Ventura County Star, Gallucci said the church shared the neighbors' concerns but he urged the neighbors and the city to see the church, not as the problem, but as part of the solution. He pointed out that scores of formerly homeless embraced by the church have found jobs and apartments. But it isn't getting any easier. Economic downturns have put more people on the street. The church's mission, wrote Gallucci, is to serve the religious needs of the community, including the poor and homeless. The church's calling, he wrote, is "to reach the least of the lost."
Gallucci concluded his letter simply.
We want to work with our neighbors and the city to address what is and has always been on our hearts: The fate of the many among us who call Ventura's street corners, river banks and public parks "home." Harbor is open to creative solutions and suggestions about ways it may improve its relationship with neighbors while still honoring its religious mission.
He then offered his e-mail, for people who wanted to mail constructive thoughts ( theharbor3100[at]gmail.com, if you have an idea).
In September, the Ventura Planning Commission will consider the future of Harbor Community Church, deciding whether to follow city staff's recommendation to let the church, and Operation Embrace, continue to operate with 41 conditions. That's right. Forty-one. If I was paid by the word, I would list them all. A few of the conditions are accompanying people on and off site to someplace at least a quarter-mile away, having security at the church from 7:30 a.m. to dusk and installing security cameras and building a 6-foot-high fence between the church and the elementary school.
Reverend Gallucci says the church will go out of business if it has to institute all the conditions. As you might imagine, they add up to be quite expensive. He agrees that the church and its programs aren't in the best area. They have looked for alternative locations but without luck. Anyone who has tried to rent or buy property in Southern California understands.
Sadly it gets grittier. According to newspaper reports, some neighbors have threatened both Gallucci and city staffers. I am embarrassed by these neighbors. If I was in charge, I would build a six foot fence around them. But perhaps they feel helpless. There is no telling, really, how any of us will react in trying circumstances.
Our neighborhood controversy won't end with the Planning Commission meeting. Everyone expects an appeal to the Planning Commission's decision. The matter then goes before the City Council. I don't envy them.
Whatever our City Council decides, it won't end on this street corner. Nationwide, the count of America's poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population. I recently read a sobering report that said 4 in 5 American adults will risk experiencing economic insecurity by the time they turn 60.
"Poverty is no longer an issue of 'them', it's an issue of 'us'," said a Washington University in St. Louis professor involved in the study.
So many reports claim so many different things, but none of us miss what we see on America's street corners.
Something to consider when making any decision regarding those we see as different.