ANCHORAGE — Parishioners at a Catholic church in downtown Anchorage were taken by surprise at mass on Sunday morning.
They were expecting to hear a homily, but instead the pastor of Holy Family Cathedral set it aside to talk about how the homeless, who frequent the church’s property, have become a safety threat.
After years of being tolerant of the homeless, offering them sandwiches and allowing them to come inside and warm up, Father Anthony Patalano’s Sunday message signals a sharp change in direction.
Patalano spoke of the church’s longtime service to the those who live on the streets — from serving them sandwiches to being instrumental in creating the Brother Francis Shelter, Beans Caf√©, Clare House and Covenant House — all programs that serve the homeless. He also said the parish has allowed alcoholics and disturbed people to come on the church grounds, in order to offer assistance.
But the pastor said times have changed.
“The current situation with the alcoholics and the disturbed is far worse than we have experienced in the past. The level of drinking, camping, gathering in groups and disturbances is past the point of toleration. It endangers our safety and inhibits people from coming to our parish,” Patalano said.
He also told parishioners he was physically attacked, as well as other two priests. He also spoke of sex acts and drug deals going down on church property — and frustrations over bathrooms being left a mess and the homeless relieving themselves outside.
Ed O’Neill, a parishioner who has long been involved in the battle to keep homeless inebriates off city streets, said he supports the priest.
“He’s on the front line, and he knows best,” said O’Neill. “Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of how serious it was until I heard that announcement.
O’Neill also is head of ARBRA - Anchorage Responsible Beverage Association, which cleans up homeless camps, a problem he said seems to be improving. He said ARBRA will be working on what it can do to help the church.
O’Neill said he hopes the church doesn’t go through with plans to fence off the grounds and put security there all the time. But he said he recently saw a symptom of the problem, when a woman disrupted mass.
“And she had to be ushered out of there. I don’t know what her issues were, but I think it probably had a lot to do with intoxication,” O’Neill said. “It happens a lot to restaurateurs and businesses all around Anchorage.”
The pastor laid out new rules on Sunday that specifically forbid drugs, drug dealing, alcohol, intoxication or sexual activity on church property. Also, restroom use is now limited to parishioners. Church grounds will be closed from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.
Just a block away at City Hall, John Martin was serving soup in tin cans to the homeless. Martin is one of Anchorage’s highest profile homeless men. For a year-and-a-half, he’s come to city hall almost every day to protest Mayor Dan Sullivan’s policies on the homeless, which include removing illegal camps set up in the city.
Sullivan said in a statement that he’s asked that routine patrols be conducted of church property. Police also will be helping the church address safety issues, he said.
Martin was sympathetic to the church.
“I get that. They’re having to deal with the mess. They’re having to deal with the violence,” he said.
He said a homeless camp might cut down on many of the problems.
Martin said he himself has spent nights sleeping under the Holy Family Cathedral’s church steps, though these days he’s living in the woods.