HARRISBURG, Pa. – A Christian homeless ministry in Pennsylvania is fighting against county officials for being booted from public property after five years of outreach.
Isaiah 61 Ministries, which feeds the homeless in Harrisburg two days each week, says that it was recently ejected from the Dauphin County Courthouse parking lot and advised that members could be arrested for loitering if they continued their outreach at the location. The county had announced earlier this year that it planned to post “No Loitering” signs around the property.
“The County Commission has basically come out and said, ‘Look, you’ve got to move along and if you don’t, we’re going to begin arresting people who are trespassing on our property,’” Jeremy Dys, an attorney that is representing the ministry, told OneNewsNow.
Dys sent a letter to the county in response, outlining that the situation began in September when Deputy Chief Clerk J. Scott Burford informed the group that they must discontinue their activities at the courthouse. He said that Burford reiterated the penalty at a hearing on October 18th.
“Dauphin County’s actions toward Isaiah 61 and the other ministries engaged in religious ministry outside the county courthouse substantially burden those ministries’ religious exercise without a compelling government interest,” Dys, who works with the Texas-based Liberty Institute, wrote. “Moreover, in imposing an all out ban on ministry activity in a public area, Dauphin County has failed to employ the least restrictive means possible.”
But county officials told reporters this week that it has been speaking to Isaiah 61 Ministries about moving to another location because the homeless have allegedly been using the property to relieve themselves, and some workers have complained of harassment. Burford told the Patriot-News that patrons of the nearby bar have also been a problem, and that there are still plans to post the “No Loitering” signs.
He said, however, that the county is working on drafting an agreement that will allow the ministry to use the parking lot in the evenings with the stipulation that they clean up after their outreach.
Isaiah 61 Ministries has since moved to another location after receiving the warning, but states that they would like to return to continue their outreach near the courthouse.
“That’s where we need to be,” April Ocasio, the president and founder of Isaiah 61 Ministries, told local television station WHTM. “Where people can easily access us and we’re just asking that the County Commissioners would respect our right to exercise what we believe in.”
“Serving the homeless and elderly is a central tenet of the Christian faith,” Dys stated. “Those who exercise their faith by caring for the poor on the streets of Harrisburg ought to be applauded for their kindness, not threatened with jail time.”
Isaiah 61 Ministries has been providing meals, clothing and toiletries to the homeless and elderly every week for the past five years.