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Downtown Anchorage Catholic Church Sets New Rules for the Homeless

November 19, 2012|by Rhonda McBride | Channel 2 News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The 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.

No one from Holy Family Cathedral would comment on the pastor’s announcement yesterday, nor did anyone from the Diocese return KTUU’s calls. 

KTUU did obtain a copy of Father Patalano’s message to the parish.

He 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 Café, 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.”

Father Patalano also told the 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, says he supports the priest.

“He’s on the front line, and he knows best,” says O’Neill. “Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of how serious it was until I heard that announcement.  Ed O’Neill is also head of ARBRA – Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailers Association, which cleans-up homeless camps, a problem O’Neill says seems to be improving.

O’Neill is also the former owner of the liquor store chain, “Brown Jug” -- and says he was dismayed to hear the priest complain about finding “Brown Jug” bags and receipts on church grounds, because the store has a policy of not selling liquor to anyone who is intoxicated or a chronic inebriate.  O’Neill speculated that others are buying alcohol for the homeless, and says ARBRA will be working on what it can do to help the church. 

O’Neill says he hopes the church doesn’t go through with plans to fence off the grounds and put security there all the time.  But O’Neill says 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,” said O’Neill. “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 ten at night until six in the morning. 

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. 

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,” said Martin, who believes a homeless camp might cut down on many of the problems.  “There might be other steps that could be taken.”  

Martin says he himself has spent nights sleeping under the Holy Family Cathedral’s church steps, though these days, he’s living in the woods. 

The mayor turned down our request for an interview.  And while his staff offered a statement, there was not an opportunity to further question the mayor, who recently cut a homeless coordinator position from the budget. 

In the statement, Mayor Sullivan said, "Due to a series of incidents in the area, I have asked our Community Action Patrol to include the Holy Family Cathedral property, particularly the alley area, as part of their routine patrol duties. I, along with Chief Mew, have also met with church leaders and congregation members to hear their concerns and to assist them enhancing their security procedures.”

On Sunday, the parishioners were told a new safety committee had formed that includes an Anchorage police officer and a State Trooper.

Anchorage Police say the church’s problem with drunks is likely spillover from the Inlet Inn, a hotel across the street that’s become notorious for crime and drunken patrons. Articles