Churches in Brookings, Oregon, are now restricted to offering free meals to the homeless just twice a week.
The City Council approved the limitation this week, following complaints from people who live near churches that fed people.
Churches are the only nonprofits in Brookings that offer free meals for the unhoused. Since 2009, local churches have worked together on the Community Kitchen Project, an effort to make sure there was at least one free meal offered every day of the week.
Despite the City Council’s ruling, at least one church — St. Timothy’s Episcopal (pictured below) — said it won’t stop providing the free meals, adding they are willing to go to court if need be.
When the pandemic hit, many meal services in the town halted due to COVID-19 concerns. St. Timothy’s started offering meals four times a week to compensate for reduced services, according to Rev. Bernie Lindley.
“This is the way we express our religion, by feeding people,” Lindley said.
Lindley said the council’s ordinance would leave some days where people living in the south coast town would not have access to a meal.
“It would disrupt their ability to get warm, nutritious meals for sure,” he said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, St. Timothy’s got permits to shelter people in their parking lot. Lindley said this influx of people caused disruptions in the neighborhood.
“Some of the people who are emotionally fragile ended up having some psychotic breaks, manic episodes, stuff like that,” he said. “So definitely, things got pretty dramatic for a while.”
Lindley believes this period is what ultimately led to a petition that was submitted to City Council, and led to the restrictions around meals.
Brookings City Manager Janelle Howard said the council received a petition in April, signed by people who live near St. Timothy’s and asking for homeless services to cease.
“They were looking for some relief because it was becoming an impact to their particular neighborhood, whether they mentioned trespassing, littering, noise,” Howard said. “They were asking for some kind of relief from the city.”
The city maintains it has the authority to do this because charitable meal services are treated like restaurants when receiving licensing from the Oregon Health Authority. Restaurants are not allowed to operate in residential zones according to the Brookings Municipal Code. All of the churches in Brookings are in residential zones.
“If they were in commercial zones, there would be no limitations to the frequency, or the hours, or the number of days a week,” Howard said.
St. Timothy’s was built In 1946, long before zone designations were established in Brookings in the ‘80s.
“I think that was the original intention throughout the history of the United States of America for churches to be in residential areas,” Lindley said.
With the newly enacted changes in Brookings, churches will have to apply for a permit to serve the allotted two meals a week in residential zones, but associated fees will be waived for churches.
Howard said many local church representatives contributed to discussions on the ordinance at public meetings leading up to the change.
“So we were looking at creating a conditional use permit process that would allow that [meal service] with some type of parameters,” Howard said. “We were trying to come up with those parameters that would be reasonable and would work for the majority.
St. Timothy’s was not a part of these discussions, according to Lindley. In fact, the church refused to join. Lindley described the ordinance as an infringement on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and an affront to the church’s calling.
“We’re not going to stop feeding,” Lindley said. “They’re going to have to handcuff me and take me to jail, which they won’t do. So it’s not going to happen; we’re not going to stop feeding. We’re going to do what Christ compels us to do.”
Lindley said the church has already been discussing legal options for fighting the ordinance with the backing of the diocese, the bishop and the larger church body.