A historic Baltimore church with a long record of ministering to homeless people has closed a park where members of the at-risk population camped overnight for decades.
Officials and parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church just east of downtown say they’ve taken the temporary step to protect their vulnerable guests from a group of men who had been aggressively peddling drugs on the premises since August.
Father Ray Chase, the pastor, told about two dozen men and women in the park Sept. 18 that its gate would be locked until the problem could be resolved. The changes took effect three days later.
The rest of the church’s services to the homeless, including a resources exchange and a Friday dinner that serves up to 300 people a week, continue, Chase said.
Parishioners attending noon Mass on Thursday came and went through a side door, as the closure included a long strand of yellow caution tape that blocked access to the front steps of the 178-year-old neoclassical structure.
A half-dozen homeless people sat leaning against a wrought-iron fence that surrounds the empty park. Some lingered under bright sunshine near the door to the rectory.
“We’re not just a bunch of homeless people, we’re a family here,” said 31-year-old Marcus Allen, who said he has often used the park as a place to sleep since moving from New Orleans 15 years ago. “It’s a struggle, but we struggle together. Now, we have to go our separate ways, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen to my brothers and sisters.”
Allen can temporarily sleep in a friend’s apartment, he said, but others “aren’t so blessed.”
Pastoral associate Colleen McCahill called it a “heartbreaking” decision for the parish, but said church leaders believed it was necessary to keep their visitors from being “preyed on” by the men.
McCahill said she believed the offenders are not homeless, and park users told her the group was selling selling K-2, an illegal, easily made drug. Chase and McCahill said the men repeatedly and, at times, profanely resisted church leaders’ entreaties to follow the rules.
Things became untenable about two weeks ago, McCahill said, when “a lot of people were really high all over the property, and that’s simply not good for them.”
"I’m not sure what’s going to happen to my brothers and sisters.”— Marcus Allen, who has slept in the park
A man she described as the most disruptive and vocal was no longer present — she said Baltimore Police helped the situation “dramatically,” though she declined to say whether officers arrested him — but one or two of his associates continue to appear on occasion, often when the yellow tape is temporarily removed for some church services.
A police spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Parish officials are considering a range of options during the closure, she said, but hiring a security force is not among them.
“That’s not the face we want to present to the community. We’re a ministry for the neighborhood, and we don’t want to appear to be a police force," said McCahill.
Established in 1841, St. Vincent de Paul has a history of supporting Baltimore’s homeless, particularly under Father Richard T. Lawrence, its parish priest for 43 years. Lawrence retired two years ago at age 74. It was during his tenure, in 2000, that the parish bought the public park adjacent to its building, a shaded parcel stocked with benches near the Shot Tower at the corner of President and Fayette streets.
The site became so popular with homeless people that problems arose at times. The parish shuttered the park once previously, in the summer of 2009, after people erected tents in a quasi-permanent encampment. When it opened again that October, the fence was in place, along with a new set of rules. The park is closed daily for cleaning between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., for example, and guests are not allowed to leave belongings on the grounds.
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McCahill said up to 20 people sleep there at night when the weather is good, and a handful during the winter. Many others, homeless and otherwise, find refuge during the day, resting or sleeping on benches, playing games or talking.
But when the men selling the drugs arrived, it changed the culture for the worse. They sat often on the front steps, sometimes harassing church officials or parishioners. When Chase, McCahill or others tried to reason with them, the results were not good. One man refused to leave even after being served a notice of trespassing.
Church officials gave separate letters Saturday to parishioners and park users.
“Because of their abusive language and aggressive, disruptive behavior, including vandalism and the sale of illegal drugs, some park users are feeling that the peace of the park has been compromised,” Chase, McCahill, and parish council vice presidents Amber Hendricks and Peggy Shouse wrote to church members.
“The duration of the closure is as yet undetermined, but it is intended to be temporary. In the meantime, we will be exploring ways to reopen the park as the more peaceful place we desire it to be ... Pray for the safety of those who have used the park as a stopping place."
Allen said he and the other members of his family could use the prayers.
“It will be a happy day when [the park] opens again,” he said. “A lot of people depend on it."