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Porterdale council orders church to close warming center for homeless

PORTERDALE, Ga. — Porterdale council members bowed to residents’ wishes Tuesday and voted to order a church to stop operating a temporary warming center for the area’s homeless in a city neighborhood.

Council members voted unanimously for the action Tuesday, Feb. 9 — which led Mayor Arline Chapman to tell Rainbow Covenant Ministries officials to stop using their Hemlock Street building to provide shelter and meals to area homeless residents after they closed Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 9 a.m.

Neither warming centers nor homeless shelters are permitted uses under the city’s zoning ordinance, said City Manager Frank Etheridge.

Rainbow officials, led by Senior Pastor Clara Lett, told city council members at a special called meeting Tuesday, Feb. 9, they opened the warming center in their church building at 9 Hemlock St. on Feb. 3. 

Lett said they offered the center to homeless people who live outdoors in makeshift camps or wooded areas of Covington and Porterdale.

“That’s our main goal just to serve the community,” Rainbow board member Catherine Warner said.

Lett said she found suitable locations were cost prohibitive in other areas of the county and board members then decided to open the warming center in Porterdale, she said. 

The church planned to operate the warming center seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. through April 1, Lett said. 

She said it was sanitizing the interior and taking daily temperature checks on the five or so individuals staying there to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

It also offered them shower facilities and beds, and a Covington restaurant pledged it would donate meals, Lett said.

In addition, church members were traveling to locations on Washington Street and the former Kmart shopping center on Turner Lake Road in Covington to offer homeless residents transportation to the Porterdale church, Lett said.

City officials said they had little knowledge of the facility before the meeting.

Porterdale residents, meanwhile, essentially lined up to say they opposed the church using its building as a temporary warming center.

Complaints included its location in a residential neighborhood and the possibility that homeless people would remain at the building beyond the planned 9 a.m. ending time for its use.

Steven Daniel said his parents were forced to have 24-hour surveillance of their property near the church when a homeless shelter operated there in prior years.

Another resident, Ross Adams, said church officials should have received city permission to open the warming center just as homeowners must receive city approval for design changes in some parts of town.

Rainbow is not allowed to operate a permanent homeless shelter in Porterdale under a prior legal agreement.

Porterdale filed a lawsuit against Lett on the grounds that a homeless shelter she formerly operated in the city was not in compliance with its zoning regulations.

The suit was postponed at the end of 2006 when a new location for the shelter was found on Turner Lake Circle in Covington, according to a past news report.

Other Porterdale residents warned about the possibility that homeless residents’ usage of the center would increase once word spread it was available.

After council members unanimously voted to order its closure, a defiant Lett said she planned to find a different way to offer the same service at the church.

“We’ll have a revival there every night,” she said.

This version of the story updates a previous version which contained inaccurate information about times of operation.