What's a pastor to do, when the least among us linger so long at his church that their behavior disturbs neighbors and parishioners?
It's a question that has been arising with some frequency in midtown Omaha, as the area is redeveloped and the amount of low-rent housing decreases.
The answer is not as easy as it might appear, as a situation unfolding at the historic St. Barnabas Parish shows.
The Rev. Robert Scheiblhofer has tacitly allowed two homeless men to camp beside St. Barnabas, near 40th and Dodge Streets and across the street from Joslyn Castle.
Most recently, the two men have slept outside the church just a few steps from a historic, neatly kept rental duplex, causing tension with neighbors.
By day, Scheiblhofer and church members often have provided food to the two men and others. Scheiblhofer has been trying to help the two acquire housing. A parishioner volunteered to help manage the financial affairs of one of the two, 67-year-old Elbert Morris. Morris would receive a small pension that's enough to pay rent, if he had a stable living arrangement.
The situation has gone on for more than two years. It hit a peak again recently, when police were called to an early-morning disturbance, and a church window was broken.
First, the men slept on the porch of a vacant rectory next door to the church, which is at 129 N. 40th St. When others joined them, the situation became untenable, and Scheiblhofer banned them. The rectory was recently torn down, for other reasons.
The two men then squatted for a time in the garage behind an adjacent rental house that St. Barnabas owns. But that became a problem for the tenants, and Scheiblhofer banned them from the garage.
For weeks, the two men have slept outside St. Barnabas, between its central air conditioning unit and a church wall. Scheiblhofer said he has turned a blind eye — and has received an earful about it.
“I get a lot of emails, that they're homeless and they bother people, and all that,” Scheiblhofer said. “I'm running into all kinds of hassles. I don't think I'm going to get a Christmas card from the neighbors this year.”
He said apartment managers have expressed concern about potentially losing tenants because of the homeless men.
“I'm also starting to get flak from parishioners, and that just makes me heartsick,” Scheiblhofer said.
To Scheiblhofer, who was recently ordained as a Roman Catholic priest after the Vatican took in his and other breakaway parishes from the Episcopal Church, it's a matter of following religious precepts.
“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” Scheiblhofer said, paraphrasing a parable from the Bible.
For neighbors, “it's a mixed bag of feelings,” said Rob Corsaro, president of the Joslyn Castle Neighborhood Association board. “People want to make sure that people are taken care of.” Yet the behavior of apparently homeless people in the neighborhood — which in the past has included following residents of the area, fighting on sidewalks and wandering into people's yards — has raised concerns.
Corsaro said he hadn't heard recent complaints from St. Barnabas' neighbors.
“But we had issues with that house next door (the now-demolished rectory),” he said. “They had an encampment. They actually scared some of the neighbors. They followed some people to their doors. ... You just don't know what somebody's going to do.”
The manager of duplexes next to St. Barnabas expressed a similar view.
“It's great that the church wants to help the homeless people,” Lee Ehlers said. “And I want to make sure that the tenants are safe, and that they're undisturbed.”
It's a situation that Ann Smolsky, program coordinator of the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, has seen before.
In fact, she had tried to help homeless people at St. Barnabas before, when she was on a homeless outreach team and they were staying in the garage.
Smolsky also helped with a similar situation, involving a homeless woman, in recent years at St. Cecilia Cathedral, 40th and Webster Streets. That took a couple of years to resolve, but eventually the woman moved into a safe place.
“There are a lot of concerned citizens — business owners, churches, neighbors — who want to help people in need but don't know how to do it, so they do it the best they can,” Smolsky said.
The Siena-Francis House shelter occasionally receives calls about such situations as the one at St. Barnabas.
“Most of the time, it's crisis situations,” said Mike Saklar, executive director of the shelter north of downtown. “They're calling, they don't know what to do, and there's inclement weather. We've gone out as far as 144th and Q Streets to get homeless people living by a creek under tarps in the winter.”
Some homeless people would rather not go to a shelter, and if they're not breaking the law or under a mental health commitment order, they can't be forced inside.
“There's a certain kind of person ... whose mentality makes it all right to sleep outside,” said Del Bomberger, CEO of the Stephen Center shelter. “It can be as much a statement as anything else — 'Here I am, I'm in your face, what are you going to do about it? I'm not just going to go hide.' ”
Sometimes, people will present themselves at a place such as a church “where someone should care,” Bomberger said.
“Somebody decides to do something, and they get stuck to them somehow,” he said.
At St. Barnabas, Morris often attends Mass. The parish hosted a 67th birthday party for him last year. His 68th birthday is coming up, and he's looking forward to another birthday party.
On a recent morning, Morris showed up at the parish hall while Scheiblhofer was being interviewed about the situation. Parishioners welcomed Morris in, and served him a breakfast of homemade green tomato pie and hot coffee, the same thing the pastor and parishioners were sharing.
Morris said he was grateful for Scheiblhofer's help and hoped to have an apartment by Thanksgiving.
Although both Bomberger and Saklar said they could make room for the two men at their shelters, Morris said no. He said he was afraid.
“I had an apartment for 30 years,” he said.
He was displaced, he said, when the apartment building where he lived, near 31st and Dodge Streets, was renovated and the rent increased. Morris then had a falling out with the person who had been managing his pension.
At First Baptist Church, Park Avenue and Harney Streets in midtown, the Rev. Matt Toupin said there's still a lot of poverty in the resurgent neighborhood. He said social service professionals, nonprofits and faith-based organizations in the area try to coordinate to meet such immediate needs as food and clothing, and to refer people who need more services.
For example, First Baptist hosts a “community meal” each Saturday, at which 200 to 300 people eat for free.
But Toupin said there could be a clearer system of communicating about services and connecting people with them.
It's important to note that midtown neighborhoods are not inundated with people wandering through, Corsaro said.
“There are thousands of people who live normal lives, who work just as hard as everyone else — and we work on our neighborhoods,” Corsaro said.
Scheiblhofer said he sees neighbors' perspective.
“This is not ideal,” he said. “My wife told me, 'You wouldn't like it if somebody was camped out in your backyard.' I wouldn't like it. I don't like it here. But there are no easy fixes.”