TAMPA, Fla. — The refuge that Sacred Heart Church offers to area homeless people was featured earlier this month by two Florida newspapers.
In a February 11 commentary in The Tampa Tribune, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla, praised the attitude of Sacred Heart saying, “The Franciscan friars at Sacred Heart parish downtown welcome male homeless in the evening. They sleep on the church steps and platforms, and friars keep a watchful eye out for those who are malnourished or in need of additional assistance.
Bishop Lynch’s essay, titled “The Homeless Are Challenge to Our Cities and Our Faith,” describes misconceptions about homeless people. He emphasized that “Christians should consider the homeless as more perfect reflections of ‘the least of my brothers and sisters’ to whom our outreach reflects our fundamental belief that all of us are made in the image and likeness of God.”
Bishop Lynch wrote: “I ask everyone to partner with their church and begin to provide homeless shelters throughout the diocese. I pray that this can be an ecumenical undertaking involving the churches and synagogues.”
On the same Sunday, The St. Petersburg Times published a large photo, shown above, of a man lying on the steps of Tampa’s Sacred Heart Church. The caption described how the homeless are “welcome on the doorsteps of this church” when many of their former options have been eliminated. Nearby parks have been closed off to the homeless, according to the Times. At Sacred Heart, “the police cannot tell the homeless to leave,” the newspaper said, and “the city cannot prevent them from being fed.”
According to Andrew Reitz, Sacred Heart’s pastor, approximately 40 men and women sleep outside the church each night.
“Attitudes toward the homeless are beginning to change slowly,” he said. “A few of our parishioners are still afraid of them. We have had meetings and we have invited several of the homeless to be part of the meetings and to tell their stories. This has helped change attitudes. “We can’t ignore them or wish they would go away.”
Sean O’Brien and Julian Jagudilla check on the situation outside the church most evenings.
“They have helped some get out of this way of life,” Andrew said. ” We are part of an effort with the business community and other charitable groups to open a drop-in center or assist those who want to change but are trapped by a poor paying job or other condition. This is a complex issue, but we have to work to take steps to offer some assistance to our sisters and brothers.”