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Dundalk church faces fine for hosting homeless

Patapsco United Methodist Church, Dundalk, could be fined $12,000 for allowing homeless to camp on grounds.

Patapsco United Methodist Church in Dundalk has a long history of looking out for the less fortunate.

The tiny congregation has served hot meals to the poor on Friday nights for 20 years. It opens its food pantry to the needy every week. It's again running its annual winter blanket and clothing giveaway.

But one of its practices has run afoul of Baltimore County officials: an unwritten policy of tacitly allowing homeless people to camp on church grounds at night.

The tradition — which sees between two and more than a dozen people sleeping in tents or under tarps, depending on whom you ask — has drawn such vehement protests from a neighboring business owner that inspectors have cited the church for illegal "use of the property as housing units."

The offense could cost the congregation $12,000 in fines — about 10 percent of its annual budget — if inspectors find it's still not in compliance by Monday.

The Rev. Katie Grover, the church's pastor, says by allowing the homeless onto church grounds, she's merely carrying out her duty to care for the "the last, the least and the lost," as Jesus commanded.

Chester Bartko, who has owned Shore Produce and Seafood next door for 30 years, says the church is "harboring vagrants." He says he has often seen people urinating and defecating on the property.

For Baltimore County, the conflict is a straightforward matter of zoning.

The county maintains emergency support services for the homeless, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler says, including the Westside Men's Shelter in Catonsville, which can house and offer other services to 110 people, and the Eastside Family Shelter for women and families in Rosedale, which offers 125 beds, case management, job skills classes and help finding permanent housing.

The shelters are part of the "10-Year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in Baltimore County," an initiative launched in 2013 to unite multiple agencies in developing "an integrated, community-based support system which will prevent homelessness and provide the necessary resources to end it."

The church's neighborhood in Dundalk, which features fast-food restaurants, a service station, a car dealership and residential streets, is not the place for such an "encampment," Kobler said.

If the church can't demonstrate at a Dec. 19 inspection that it has made sure homeless people can't camp there, it will either have to pay the fine in full or appear before an administrative law judge two days later.

Grover, a Maryland native who took over the congregation in 2014, says she is following the tenets of her faith. She cites the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus tells followers that God will one day separate the "sheep from the goats" by noting how each one treated the poorest and most despised among them.

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,'" Jesus says.

Grover says others might not share that perspective — but that doesn't alter her mission.

"As even my friends have told, homelessness can be scary," she says. "It's not aesthetically appealing to anyone. But there are real human beings behind that issue, people with their own lives and stories. Let's not just shoo them away."

The congregation, which was founded in Dundalk more than 200 years ago, has seen livelier days — about 60 people attend services in a sanctuary built for 500, Grover says.

Its policy for the homeless is unwritten and conditions are anything but grand. They sleep at times on a bench out front, in a small rectangular yard in the rear, or in a semi-enclosed garden in front of the sanctuary.

"I think there's a spiritual dimension to it," Grover says: " 'I'm here at a church; I'm safe.'"

Grover says she has no interest in "throwing the county under the bus, or even in throwing our neighbor under the bus." But God asks believers to draw a line for their faith, she says, and the question of whether or not to welcome the lost represents one such juncture.

Paying the fine, she says, would be difficult. The church's heating system recently failed, a problem that will cost at least $80,000 to fix, according to one estimate.

She says she will not post "no trespassing" signs or call police on those who sleep at the site. But beyond that, she says, she's attempting to discern how God is trying to direct her congregation.

To Bartko, the answer is clear.

His father, Chester Bartko Sr., started Shore Produce and Seafood 50 years ago — just about the time the church erected its current building just across his back fence. He and his wife took the business over in 1986.

Bartko says he is frustrated by Grover's "stubborn" insistence that she is "doing God's work" by sheltering the homeless.

"I refuse to call them 'homeless,'" he says. "She's harboring vagrants. I counted 14 people there one day last summer. They live in boxes and tents all over the property. They're [urinating] and [defecating] all over the place.

"I saw a woman in the yard who wasn't wearing a top. What do you think that does for business and for the neighborhood?"

Bartko has mounted a video camera on the side of his building pointing at the yard behind the church. He says neighbors and nearby business owners share his frustrations. But because he's the closest, he says, he gets "the brunt of it."

His first move was to call police, he says. He says officers told him they could do nothing because no offenses were taking place on his property.

Eventually, he says, he went to County Councilman Todd K. Crandell, who represents Dundalk.

Crandell did not return calls seeking comment Monday.

Kobler says the county's code enforcement system is "complaint-based," which means officials take no action until a citizen reaches out.

If Patapsco United pays the required fine, she says, Bartko or others in the neighborhood would have the opportunity to call police or take other action in the event of future problems.

Grover says she agrees with the county that more "holistic" approaches to homelessness are a better long-term approach to a complicated problem. In the meantime, she says, she wishes there were more services for the homeless in the eastern county.

She's still unsure how she might address a finding of noncompliance next week, but she's keeping the congregation's options open.

"I want a fair and just resolution for everyone, but one that doesn't forget about those people sleeping outside," she says. "I'm going to do what God asks me to do. I'm definitely seeing his hand in this."

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