SAN ANTONIO - A local church is pushing back against the city after the place of worship was recently hit with several code enforcement citations for providing services to the homeless community.
The Life Restored Church on Arbor Place near downtown has provided services such as showers, food and shelter to homeless individuals in the area.
Church pastor Alex Fleming said his ministry started four years ago when he bought the property which includes a building and small house.
"Everything started about four years ago," Fleming said. "It was winter, and I heard that a homeless person died after freezing to death. And the Holy Spirit said, 'You are going to take in the homeless today'"
Fleming said he did just that.
"We didn't do service that next day, because we cleared out the chairs and took in the homeless people," Fleming said. "I took my shirt off in 32-degree weather and challenged all pastors to take in the homeless. This is where it started and my vision is to make this a 24/7 church."
The church ministers to everyone, including the homeless six days a week, providing showers, food and clothes.
"We converted our shed in the back into a two-stall shower," Fleming said. "They are really nice showers. The only issue was that it is only 100 square feet and Code Enforcement told us that it has to have at least a 300-square-feet encasement, so we are working to build it bigger. We literally did a fundraiser and raised $12,000 to start building everything the right way, but then they told me something else became an issue."
Fleming's biggest issue is the industrial zoning his church's property sits on.
"When I bought the property, I knew it was industrial, but the city told me that I could put a church anywhere, so I did," Fleming said. "We are in the perfect area to help people. Why? Because there is a lot of disaster in this area. There is darkness and this is where the light needs to be."
Fleming said his ministry has helped at least 20 homeless individuals get off the street, find God and get their own jobs and homes.
"We are not holding their hands to make them do anything," Fleming said. "We are simply walking with them as Christ would have wanted. They have gained hope, confidence, joy and motivation to turn their lives around."
The city said churches are in an industrial zone, but human services like that of Haven for Hope would require permits or rezoning to commercial. Fleming has been hit with about $1,800 in fines, which include feeding the homeless, having showers without a permit, plumbing, and having a fence built that he installed near the showers to comply with his neighbors. He believes the fines are not only an attack on the church, but a violation of their First Amendment right to religion.
"If I am a church, who dictates my function as a church?" Fleming said. "I thought the Bible did that, so I am not going to let you dictate to me what a church does. The Bible already told me what I am supposed to do, and so I am not going to rezone for that. The feeding and the showers, who said that was different from the church? You can't tell us the church is only to do Sunday morning services. According to our bylaws, which is the Bible, Jesus fed all the time and gave water and I am sure if they had the technology, they would have the shower ministry as well. This is our expression of our religion."
Fleming was given 30 days to respond to code enforcement after officials were made aware of the services he was providing at his church.
"I responded within those 30 days, and when I did, the person I spoke with was trying to sell me a rezoning application," Fleming said. "He said it would cost about $3,000 to apply. I said 'OK, so if I do that, does that fix everything? Am I able to serve? He was like, 'No, probably not.' Well then, why would I give you $3,000 if I am going to be in the same boat. So I left. I do not trust any one of them because once we fixed one thing, they hit us with something else."
Fleming said it's mind boggling at the amount of red tape he has to go through in order to serve the homeless.
"We need the city and city development services to make it super easy for churches like myself and ministries that help the homeless," Fleming said "You need to help us help them. They are strong-arming us because this is just a business tactic of them getting more money. We are literally serving a population whose human rights are violated constantly at no cost to the city. If I don't stand up and fight this now, what are they going to say in the future? 'You can't have a church service for the homeless. You can't serve them coffee now. They will restrict my service from doing anything every other church is out there doing, such as serving coffee, donuts, food and more. Just because my congregation happens to be homeless, well that is a human's rights violation. They are humans too. We literally serve all backgrounds in the LGBTQ community. We serve Muslims. We serve atheist, but where is the outcry for those groups? You telling me that if those people are homeless, then they no longer count? This just doesn't make sense."
The Development Services Department issued this statement:
"The first issue that needs to be addressed is that the property is not properly zoned for what the church is trying to do. Our goal is health and safety, regardless who will be inside these facilities. We want proper safe water and sewer. There is no question the goal to provide these services for the homeless is well intended, but proper approvals must be followed to ensure safety."
The $1,800 in fines were delivered Wednesday to Fleming, and though he said he spoke with the code enforcement officer, she signed "not present for signature."
"That is another form of injustice," Fleming said. "She literally did not even bother to walk in and see how up to code our kitchen was. She didn't bother to see how the showers are. She honestly couldn't have even known that we fed the homeless if it wasn't for someone who complained. We literally get our food from a local restaurant who makes it and we pick it up and hand it out. We have a license to be food handlers. This is just not right."
Fleming also feels he was double-charged for the citations.
"On the citations, there are two different addresses," Fleming said. "It is listed at Arbor Place for the building, and then I bought the small house in the back for the Children's ministry, which is listed under San Marcos. I have one deed, therefore, this is one property, so I should not be getting charged double just because they have in their records that it is two properties. It is all one."
Fleming said the next step is not pay the fines or go through the rezoning process since he is not guaranteed to get permits to operate as he has. He said he plans to go to the office with lawyers, pastors and supporters to stand for what he believes in.
"I want them to say to my face that if I do these things, that I can serve the homeless the way I have," Fleming said. "I have been given the run around ever since this all started. I want them to give me the real rules and things I am to do, and I will record it because we do not need more fines and expenses coming out of nowhere. I feel like the church and churches like us are under attack because as the city continues to grow, they see more opportunity to expand businesses, therefore they want to kick us and the homeless out. We are not going to be bullied like this."
Alhough Fleming could face higher fines and even possible closure, he said he will not stop doing what he believes God has called him to do.
"Nobody complains when they are rallying and walking through here and surrounding this area to do drugs in that house, but now they are rallying when the homeless is coming to get hope," Fleming said. "Now you want to attack us on that. This is something the top legislation really needs to be put in place where churches do not have to rezone or any of that. We are the church. This is our function and bro that is too bad. You let us in. This is our function, you should have done your homework. This is the function of the church and now we need to figure something so we can work this out. If not, we are not going down without a fight and I am not going down silently. I am ready to go to jail no matter what the cost whatever it is to be a voice for the homeless."
The Development Services also released the current zone and the zones appropriate for human services:
Current zoning for the property is I-1:
The general industrial district accommodates areas of heavy and concentrated fabrication and manufacturing and industrial uses which are suitable based on the character of adjacent development. Examples of permitted uses: auto and light truck auction, truck stop, abrasives manufacturing, food and drug manufacturing, sand and gravel storage and sales, outdoor flea market, manufactured homes/oversized vehicles sales, service and storage. Churches are also allowed in this district.
Would need to be rezoned to a C-3 or D:
C-3 districts are intended to provide for more intensive commercial such as regional shopping centers, power centers, and/or assembly of similar uses into a single complex. There are no building size limitations, and building height is limited to 35 feet. Examples of permitted uses: bar/tavern and nightclub, amusement/theme parks, dance hall, indoor movie theater, auto repair, auto sales, auto glass sales (installation permitted), auto muffler (sales and installation only), hotel, bookbinder, dry cleaning or laundry plant, indoor flea market, home improvement center, body piercing/massage/tattoo parlor. No outdoor storage is permitted. Outdoor operations and display shall be permitted in areas which are screened as provided in 35-510 of the Unified Development Code.
D - This zone provides concentrated downtown retail, service, office and mixed uses in the existing central business district. There are no building size or height limitations, and parking requirements are waived. Examples of permitted uses: bar/tavern, indoor theater, taxi and limousine service, residential uses, hotel, art gallery and/or studio, offices (no restrictions on square footage unless otherwise prescribed), and telephone equipment infrastructure.
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