Downtown church fencing off alleyway where homeless men, women sleep

Cites security and sanitation concerns; pledges to step up advocacy efforts and pressure on public officials


  • Ken Lund/Wikimedia Commons
  • Central Presbyterian Church

For years, dozens of men and women have laid down pillows and blankets in an alleyway between the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Central Presbyterian Church in Downtown. Finding a spot meant you'd be close to food and water when the two churches' outreach services opened in the morning. And for some people, a homeless advocate says, just felt safer there.

The alleyway will soon be off limits. Citing security and sanitary concerns, Central Presbyterian's governing body on Monday night voted to build a fence and gate to keep people from sleeping there. The move comes after two years of consideration, church officials tell CL, and will coincide with efforts to place men and women affected, as well as a renewed advocacy effort.

"Clearly, our goal is not to suddenly displace people with no warning but rather to work with them and others to find places for them to reside," Resident Pastor Anthony Damelio said in an email. "Throughout this time, as well, we have committed to engage more forcefully and faithfully with our elected officials to make more resources available for those experiencing homelessness in this city."

According to the church, the reasons behind the decision include:

1. The church's unsuccessful efforts over two decades to address problems of human waste and reported incidents of rape, drug use, and other violence occurring overnight in that area through portable toilets, cleaning and security services, and attempts to intervene pastorally.
2. The Atlanta community's lack of adequate supportive services, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and affordable housing.
3. The conclusion that the use of a gate and fence is preferable to the presence of long-term security guards.

"That alley is a place where young children and their parents come and go daily to the church's Child Development Center," added Damelio. "The recommendation includes use of a gate and fence but also a renewed commitment to public policy advocacy that would increase services and care for homeless individuals and their families."

Marshall Rancifer, former advocacy director for the English Avenue-based Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, says that the alleyway has been a nightly refuge for a varying number of men and women over the years. He said men and women often gravitated toward the church at night because "a lot of times people feel safer around a church, like nothing will happen to them."

Rancifer, who's formerly homeless, performs outreach work in the neighborhood. He says he proposed two alternate plans two weeks ago to church leadership and a task force assembled to study the alleyway issue. One called for the installation of a port-a-toilet and to let him work overnight to help people move out of the alleyway. Rancifer says he also suggested that, if the church were to install the fence, to still allow people to sleep there but have someone keep watch overnight. (Central did not return an emailed request for comment about Rancifer's proposals before we published this post.)

The church's decision follows a concerted effort driven by the city, and in partnership with the state, to remove homeless camps underneath bridges, especially along the Downtown Connector. Officials say such living conditions are inhabitable and pose a public health hazard. They say the aim is to connect homeless men and women with services. However, no service providers were present during a removal effort in late March.

Rancifer says he understands the church's concerns regarding sanitation, but he doesn't "understand the lack of hospitality when it comes to people sleeping in the alley of the church." Putting up the fence, he said, "is just another barrier to the homeless."

"People should care because every one of these places in Downtown is being closed off," Rancifer said. "Where are the homeless and the marginalized supposed to go if everyone's putting up fences and there's not enough shelter space?"

Central operates an emergency shelter during the cold winter months. On March 31 it closed until later this year. The church also helps support the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that aids the homeless and nearly homeless to find housing, navigate bureaucracy, and locate other assistance. In the statement, the church said it would continue to also advocate for changes in public policy to help prevent homelessness.

It added: "And while we will continue our own work for and with those experiencing homelessness, our elected leaders must be held to greater accountability for their failure to address with greater urgency the needs of those who have to sleep in alleys, under bridges, and on cold cement."