Church, La Crosse at odds over homeless campground

A Methodist church pastor in La Crosse, Wis., is heading for a showdown with the city over the camping taking place on the church’s lawn.

It’s the latest test of the boundaries of religious freedom.

“This is government interference with our church’s mission and ministry,” the Rev. Forrest Clark said tells the La Crosse Tribune.

Clark, the interim pastor, has tents set up for homeless people on the site, continuing a tradition of the previous pastor to create a safe spot for the homeless in the city.’

“Serving the poor, the homeless, the needy — it’s our ministry. This is holy ground, sacred ground,” Clark said.

“We do not feel that we have to ask permission of the government at any level to practice our faith and to carry out the ministries to which we are called,” he said.

Fire Department Division Chief Craig Snyder said the city action was in reaction to complaints from a business and residents.

Police Sgt. Randy Rank said, “We acted on a complaint from a business neighboring the church that there had been loitering, trespassing and sleeping in doorways. The officers noted people camping there.”

“This is the way we practice our faith. This small congregation is amazing,” said a member of the church’s homeless ministry committee. He’s also homeless, and he’s afraid to give his full name. He goes by “Bob”.

He cited the parable from Matthew 25:40 in which Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Clandestine camps of homeless are sprinkled throughout the city — north of Riverside Park, in Houska Park along the Mississippi River, and in Cameron Park between Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue along King Street, among others, Bob said, adding, “The only difference between us and the hidden camps is we are visible.”

Police have ushered campers from Cameron and told them to sleep in city parking ramps instead, Bob said.

City officials say they’re not going to go on church property and evict the homeless. They’ve sent a letter saying the church is violating the law.

Last month, the Department of Justice declared it’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside.