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Denison Church In Cleveland Says Cease Use Notice Violates 1st Amendment

A series of inspections at the church revealed the fire code violations at Denison United Church of Christ. [Google Maps]
The front entrance of Denison United Church of Christ

Updated: 1:37 p.m., Friday Dec. 27, 2019.

Advocates for the homeless are calling a cease use order from the City of Cleveland a violation of the First Amendment. The notice was issued to Denison United Church of Christ, which is housing the homeless during the winter.

The three-page notice details multiple fire code violations: insufficient fire extinguishers or emergency lighting, obstructed exits, and improperly stored flammable liquids. The church also does not have a fire alarm or sprinkler system.

Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) Communications Director Molly Martin said they discussed the safety violations at a meeting with the city before the citations were issued Tuesday.

“It was kind of in our understanding in the meeting that okay, maybe they’re going to work with us and these are somewhat affordable changes that could be made and could be installed so that the church, at the very least, is obviously taking safety and fire seriously,” Martin said.

But, she said, the cease use notice came as a surprise.

“It’s one thing to implement safety measures to make sure people are safe, and another for the city to require them to change their type of use,” Martin said.

Denison UCC started housing people experiencing homelessness in November in a partnership with The Metanoia Project, an organization that operates the shelter at St. Malachi. The St. Malachi facility had to lower its bed count due to safety concerns, and Denison UCC agreed to accept overflow.

But a series of inspections at the church revealed the fire code violations, and the city is calling for the facility to fix them, as well as change its use under city code from a church to a shelter in order to continue operating.

The city released a statement Thursday on its decision to issue the cease use notice. It says the Department of Building and Housing has been clear with Denison UCC on the need for an application to change its use since it began operating, and that the chuch "committed to making an application."

"The church is still welcome to submit a temporary R-1 transient use application, which would give it 180 days to operate its shelter," the statement says. "If the application were rejected because upgrades to, for example, a sprinkler system were not made, the findings could be appealed and the review board could consider a variance."

The change is necessary because the church's current legal use is for assembly, the city said, and changing the use would not affect its current operations as a church. The department also issued a violation order to Denison UCC last week, according to the statement. The church has 30 days to submit an appeal for that order.

NEOCH, Metanoia and UCC are considering the cease use notice a First Amendment violation of the freedom of the church, Martin said, and the groups are working with legal counsel. The church has until Dec. 31 to file an appeal against the notice, at which point a hearing will be scheduled.

If the church continues to house people prior to the hearing, the city said, the Cleveland Fire Department will require someone to monitor the facility for fire, alert occupants and make attempts to extinguish it. That person does not need to be a firefighter, the city said.

A Gap In the Cold-Weather Plan

The discussion around the St. Malachi and Denison UCC shelters are an example of a larger problem with addressing homelessness in Cleveland, Martin said.

“We need this more coordinated cold weather response plan at the city level, and the city hasn’t really taken the lead on coordinating that conversation,” Martin said.

The three organizations held a rally outside of City Hall Monday calling for a better cold weather plan, particularly for people who are shelter-resistant due to difficulties such as trauma or access.

Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack represents the district where St. Malachi is located. He agreed the city needs to do more for people experiencing homelessness but said it needs to be in collaboration with organizations like the Metanoia Project and the county’s Office of Homeless Services.

“The Office of Homeless Services, who is the responsible agent, in partnership with the city, needs to take a look at not only a cold weather plan but also, how are we serving folks that don’t fit into the traditional mold of shelters or permanent supportive housing,” McCormack said. “We have to get more creative.”

The cease use order for Denison UCC doesn’t address the issue causing the overflow, McCormack said, and the Metanoia Project and UCC are filling what he called “a critical gap” in the services provided by the county and city.

“Fire concerns or otherwise with any facility quite frankly in the City of Cleveland, we need to work toward solving those issues instead of just kind of saying, ‘You can’t do that,’” McCormack said.

McCormack was not involved in the cease use notice or in citing safety concerns at the St. Malachi location, he said.

The county has resources available for shelter-resistant people, according to a statement from the county Department of Health and Human Services emailed to ideastream.

“There are currently overflow arrangements in place for single adults and families and no one seeking help is turned away. Several agencies do outreach in the community to build trust with homeless individuals who are shelter resistant in order to offer them services and shelter if they choose to take it and help them access housing,” the statement said. “This effort is ongoing and will continue so that we can serve anyone who needs assistance, and no one is left out in the cold.”

NEOCH is one of the agencies working with the county to address homelessness and provide outreach.