Under fire from neighbors and the Police Bureau, the St. Francis Church has agreed to shut down a private park in Southeast Portland that critics contend has become a magnet for criminal activity.
"We'll keep people out of St. Francis Park for six months," pastoral administrator Valerie Chapman told WW, adding that the church had not decided exactly how to implement the move. "How do you do that?" she asked. "Do you put up a chain-link fence?" In addition, the church has promised to beef up its security patrols.
Located on Southeast 11th Avenue between Stark and Oak streets, the Catholic church has for years operated a free dining room that serves 250 to 300 people a day and a private park where homeless people can rest during daylight hours without fear of harassment by police.
But tension in the community has been building since September, when a transient man attempted to set fire to JOIN, a homeless agency that rents space from the church. For neighbors, the incident highlighted the problems there. Defenders of the ministry say these episodes have been blown out of proportion. Chapman contends, for example, that the suspect in the attempted arson was not a patron of the dining hall and that neighbors tend to blame the church for every theft and bit of litter. "We're not responsible for every bad thing that happens in Southeast Portland," she says.
But a computer analysis by the Police Bureau suggests that the one-block St. Francis Park does draw more than its share of criminal activity. At Creston Park, a small public park in a similar Southeast neighborhood, police responded to 306 emergency calls between June and September. At St. Francis, there were 1,239.
If the church does not satisfy police concerns, the precinct commander can shut down the facility under the city's chronic-nuisance ordinance. "We'd prefer to work with them," says police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz. "We're not asking for the moon. But you have to be good neighbors."
A meeting about the issue is slated for 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Norse Hall, 111 NE 11th Ave. (entrance on Couch Street).