The First Assembly of God Church decided last week to withdraw its application to the Township to open and run a homeless shelter on the church premises, at Cedar Grove Road and Bay Avenue in Toms River.
The shelter, to be called the “Lodge,” would have acted as a temporary residence for 40-50 homeless men and women for three months at a time.
Pastor Paul Gifford began the planning of the shelter in early 2011 with other advocates for the homeless, and as the plans progressed the church recently notified nearby neighbors that the application to open the shelter had been filed and upcoming planning meetings were being scheduled.
“It isn’t a question of helping the homeless,” said Pastor Gifford, "but rather, how to help them and where to help them.”
After the notifications were sent to church neighbors, several residents expressed concerns with the plans, saying it would change the character of the neighborhood.
The church, following township code, did properly notify the homes within 200 feet of the church regarding plans for the shelter, but based on advice from their attorney, Pastor Gifford decided to hold an open forum community meeting with residents outside of the 200-foot radius, to present their plans and their objectives in creating the shelter at the church.
The question of “where” is the main concern of the community near the church.
“The program is fine, it is good,” said a resident of the Twin Oaks neighborhood just a few blocks from the Church, “but it doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood like ours.”
The resident, who declined to give his name, said they and other neighbors were also concerned that there was no clear criteria that proposed residents of the Lodge would have to meet. “The church didn’t really give us clear answers at the community meeting.”
Pastor Gifford, speaking for himself and his church, said he needed three things to be achieved before he would proceed with the plan to open a shelter. First was Congregational approval to proceed further; Second was ensuring that the mission of the Lodge would be supported by the city, state and federal government; and Third, that the residential community would embrace the vision of the Lodge.
While the congregation endorsed the idea, and the government codes would be followed, the response from the community did not coincide with the vision, Gifford said.
“We achieved number 1 and number 2,” said Pastor Gifford, “but with number 3 we had a stand-off.”
Pastor Gifford said his idea of community is not just the few homes around his church or his congregation, but it is the community as a whole — including the greater surrounding area.
Though Bay Avenue is a busy residential corridor, many surrounding off-streets are quieter cul-de-sacs and Cedar Grove Elementary School is nearby.
“My heart and passion is the community,” said Pastor Gifford, “and at the open forum meeting on February 11, hearing the questions and concerns from over 100 of my fellow community members, I knew my church wasn’t the perfect location for the Lodge and few days after that meeting we decided to withdraw our application with the Township.”
Even though Pastor Gifford and the board were met with concern and some anger from community residents at the open forum meeting, he said there was also a sense of genuine concern voiced by the residents for the plight of the homeless and the mission of the Lodge, “but they just didn’t want it in their backyard,” said Pastor Gifford.
Addressing the needs of the homeless in Toms River and throughout Ocean County is a topic that continues to be argued by homeless advocates, who say there is a general lack of facilities in the county. The idea of Lodge-style possibilities was brought up at a forum discussion held at Ocean County Library, March 28, 2011.
The Lodge would have been housed in the Youth Ministry building behind the church and through grants and donations would help rehabilitate the homeless residents by providing medical attention, legal counseling, mental health support, job skills and transportation for a period of three months after which the residents would check-out with skills hopefully to help keep them employed and not homeless, Gifford said. Security patrols and surveillance would occur 24 hours a day and each resident would have to adhere to drug testing prior to being allowed at the Lodge.
But what wasn’t made clear to the community was the type of homeless people that would be allowed to stay at the Lodge.
“We never got a good answer to that,” said the resident of Twin Oaks, “we have a lot of kids around here walking to and from Cedar Grove Elementary, young mothers jogging with their baby strollers, and families; we don’t know what type of history or issues these homeless people will bring with them to our neighborhood. Are they drug addicts or did they just lose their house due to the economy?”
Pastor Gifford said that the criteria for residents of the Lodge was not explained as clearly as it could have been during the open forum meeting.
“We don’t feel defeated though,” said Pastor Gifford. “People believe in the mission of the Lodge, but it just won’t be at our church and in this community. We do embrace the community involvement and will push forward with finding a new location.”