It was standing room only when the Browne’s Addition Neighborhood Council held a special meeting Jan. 16 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. On the agenda was one thing: Peaceful Valley Community Center’s possible move into All Saints Lutheran Church on South Spruce Street.
Mark Reilly, director of Peaceful Valley Community Center, had barely started his presentation when he was peppered with questions about current programs at All Saints and their impact on the neighborhood.
The neighbors said the church’s free Tuesday night dinner and food bank attract transients, homeless and mentally ill to the area.
Code Enforcement has received complaints about people living in campers in the church’s parking lot and on nearby streets, and the Spokane Police Department confirmed there are a lot of calls to Coeur d’Alene Park during the summer.
Katherine Fritchie, longtime Browne’s Addition resident and newly elected president of the neighborhood council, said she’s tired of her kids being afraid to walk through the park and her dog rolling in human feces left behind by campers on the bluff.
“People are upset with the church,” Fritchie said. She added the neighborhood council has to decide if it wants to support the youth center with some of its neighborhood development funds. A vote is on the agenda for the Feb. 6 neighborhood council meeting, which the Rev. Alan Eschenbacher, pastor at All Saints, has also been invited to.
“I feel like if you complain about issues at the church, it’s turned into something else, like you are against the homeless,” Fritchie said.
Eschenbacher was not at last week’s meeting but in an interview Monday, he said his congregation is simply doing what a church is supposed to do.
“We feed people who are hungry and clothe those who are naked,” Eschenbacher said.
He does not agree that the church’s current programs create neighborhood problems.
“We hand out about 1,500 pounds of food every week, and somewhere around 80 or 90 people show up for our free Tuesday dinner,” said Eschenbacher, “but I can only remember two incidents in the last many years where things have gotten loud and unruly and we had to call police.” He added that his background as a prison chaplain and recent training in mental health chaplaincy ensures that he can handle what’s going on at the church.
“We don’t do background checks or profiles on people who come here, but who does?” Eschenbacher said. “We have plenty of volunteers and security here.”
He is aware that people occasionally camp under the awning in front of the church.
“I tell them we don’t want them there, but I don’t come back at midnight and kick them out,” said Eschenbacher, adding that two campers actually heard someone breaking into the church and scared off the burglars last year. “Who knows what they would have done if they’d gotten into the church – probably made a huge mess.”
And homeless people in Browne’s Addition sleeping in the park or on church grounds are not a new problem, Eschenbacher said.
“When I opened the drapes on my first day here in 2002, there were two guys sleeping outside with beer cans and garbage thrown all over the place,” Eschenbacher said. “The neighborhood has gotten a lot better since then.”
The church received community development funding for a kitchen remodel in 2004, and also received donations that made it possible to install a walk-in freezer.
Does Eschenbacher feel it’s responsible to bring children into a building where homeless and mentally ill people also come?
“Absolutely,” he said. “We wouldn’t do this unless we thought it safe for the kids.”
Reilly, with the community center, said the presence of a youth program probably will improve the neighborhood, much like what happened in Peaceful Valley.
“If we are in the park doing things,” Reilly said, “then it’s not as interesting for people creating trouble to be there.”