The city of Cleveland this afternoon — yes, on Christmas Eve — told a church that it can no longer function as a church if it chooses to house those experiencing homelessness.
In a letter taped to the door of the church, the Cleveland Department of Public Safety demanded that the Denison Avenue United Church of Christ (UCC) change the official use of the building from its existing status as a place of worship should it continue to house some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. The church stepped up to provide this essential service to assist the Metanoia Project
, a local nonprofit that provides, among other things, a hospitality shelter for the unsheltered homeless.
In the late fall, Councilperson Dona Brady told
UCC’s pastor, Nozomi Ikuta, that she was opposed to this effort. Ikuta continued to operate the shelter service despite Brady’s warnings. Ikuta told Scene that she was expecting to hear about a path forward that would allow her building to comply with the standards required to do this work, but Ikuta never expected a demand like this.
“A sprinkler system is a hard ask,” Ikuta told Scene. “To admit that we’re no longer a church is a different ask. We’re being told to make a choice between saying we are no longer a church and selling our homeless friends down the river.” Ikuta noted that safety and code compliance are obviously a primary goal of the church and that they are prepared to navigate a path forward in that regard. This demand, however, is outside of the realm of what they are willing to consider.
“My question is why? Is it about safety? Is it about covering their butts in case anything goes down legally? Or is it about a political vendetta? How would we know and which percentage? They are not mutually exclusive possibilities.”
In response to an inquiry about the cease of use order, Councilperson Brady told Scene that, “This is the first I heard of it” and “I have not received any information.” However, a source privy to conversations within city hall told Scene today that, several weeks ago, Brady claimed to be using the building and housing enforcement systems to shut down the efforts of UCC.
Joseph Mead, a Cleveland State University law professor, told Scene that, “If Cleveland is telling a church that they have to choose between being a church and serving people experiencing homelessness, that is clearly illegal." Mead, who does not speak on behalf of his institution, has studied the criminalization of homelessness and offered these views based on his study and knowledge. “The First Amendment says that cities cannot target religious or expressive organizations for special burdens. If there is a conflict between the First Amendment and local building codes, the First Amendment wins.”
The cease of use notice comes only a day after the Metanoia Project and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) organized a protest at City Hall to demand that essential and life-saving shelter services will continue to be provided to those most in need.
“Six people have frozen to death over the past few years and the unsheltered homeless population continues to rise,” NEOCH executive director, Chris Knestrick told Scene. Rather than working to fill this unmet need, Knestick says Councilperson Brady appears to be hyper-focused on attacking UCC and Metanoia and shutting them down. “Requiring the church to change its use is really problematic... [The city has] already suffered so much from segregation and racist policies and [it needs] to deal with those issues.”
Scene reached out to Council President Kevin Kelley and the Cleveland City Council communications department for comment. Neither party could be reached as of publication.