A local ministry is strongly considering legal action against the city of Bayou La Batre after what they say is a concerted attempt by the city to shut down its homeless shelter, but officials claim they’re only trying to ensure the residents in the shelter are safe.
According to Lynn Harbeson, co-founder and director of Christ N Us Ministries, the church has run a family-based homeless shelter in the city since at least 2015. Today there are around 20 residents, all of whom could be at risk of being put out on the street, at least temporarily.
The problem lies with safety concerns raised by city officials, including possible fire hazards and building code violations. Harbeson said their building was dilapidated when they opened the shelter, but said the city permitted them to use it and hasn’t seen a problem until this year.
“We took our own resources and poured them into renovating the building. We went through the city, passed inspections and did everything to get the power turned on,” Harbeson said. “Suddenly, this year the fire department does a walkthrough and says we’re under all these violations that have to be rectified.”
Some of those violations were detailed in a Jan. 3, 2018, letter to the ministry from Bayou Fire Chief John Wiggins, who noted that — among other things — the building had “no fire escapes, no sprinkler system, no hardwired smoke detectors and no suppression system over [the] stove.”
Speaking with Lagniappe, Wiggins said there are more than 20 beds on the second floor, some of which belong to children, but only one exit down a single set of stairs.
Harbeson said Christ N Us wants the building to be safe. She claims steps have been taken to bring it into compliance, but Wiggins disagrees. He told Bayou La Batre City Council members Monday he’s tried to assist the ministry but has seen little effort on their part to address the issue.
“We make two or three runs a day where people lose their lives in the city. That’s the line of work we’re in. We come back, we eat and do what we’ve got to do. It’s no big deal,” he said. “But every fire I’ve ever went to with a child there, I can still see it. I can still smell them. I told their architect, ‘If you don’t bring me something in the next 30 days, I’m getting those kids out.’”
After 90 days, Wiggins said, he was required by law to notify Alabama State Fire Marshal Scott F. Pilgreen about the violations. Wiggins said Pilgreen’s office has already sent inspectors to the facility; they are expected to issue their own report within the next week or so.
In addition to concerns about fire safety, there are also alleged building code violations, which Code Enforcer Frank Williams detailed in a separate letter to the ministry not long after Wiggins began raising red flags about the lack of fire suppression and detection measures.
Since then, the church says it’s been raising money online and through personal donations to make repairs to the shelter and have been working with an architect they were set up with through the city to help establish a plan to address those concerns.
They thought they were in a good position until they had a meeting with city officials last week.
Harbeson said Williams notified the church at the meeting — allegedly for the first time — they’d have to vacate the premises while repairs were made and would be required to divulge what she considers “private information” in order to obtain the necessary building permits.
“We were told before we could be issued a permit, we would have to divulge where our monies are coming from,” she said. “They’re wanting the names of our donors, sponsors, where our monies are coming from for materials to tools. That’s a violation of our rights.”
Harbeson provided a copy of the letter from Williams saying the city would need “confirmation of resources, materials, funding, contributions and donations that will enable the successful completion of the project” in writing “before the issuance of any permit.”
However, Williams told councilors Monday his request was in line with the normal practices of issuing a building permit and accused the ministry of misrepresenting the situation to the shelter residents and in a series of posts on social media.
“When you have a problem you can either address it or you can choose another path that has these misrepresentations,” he said. “They’re on Facebook saying things such as I wanted to know who was giving money. I don’t want to know who was giving money, I want to know that there’s money there to do the job.”
Regardless of the intent, Harbeson says the ministry is working with a group of attorneys out of Washington, D.C., specializing in religious discrimination cases. She declined to name the firm, but said they’d taken an interest in the information the city asked for.
However, the fact that many wouldn’t have a place to go if they were required to vacate the shelter during renovations is probably more pressing to residents than a legal battle over a possible case of government overreach.
Yet Harbeson said she, along with many of her church members and the shelter residents, believe the hoops they’ve been asked to jump through this year are part of an organized effort on the city’s part to close the shelter for good. City officials have denied the accusation.
Wiggins noted his department donated toys to children at the shelter last Christmas and said firefighters volunteered to perform uncompensated fire watches when the code violations were first discovered to give Christ N Us more time to address them.
Mayor Terry Downey stood by Wiggins and Williams and also claimed several efforts have been made to work with the ministry since January, but said his staff will follow the law.
“We aren’t trying to hammer anybody, but — and we make no apology for it — we will enforce the codes of this city,” Downey said. “There’s a lot of scripture you can throw around, but the Bible also says in Romans 13, ‘Obey the magistrate, obey the laws of the land.’”