DOWNEY — City officials say they will go to court in the next week to try to close a church home for unwed mothers because the building is in violation of numerous city safety and zoning laws and is a fire hazard.
But if the home, called His Nesting Place, is closed, 20 women and children will be left out in the streets, says Pastor Al Howard of the Confirmed Word Faith Center. The nondenominational evangelical church on Priscilla Avenue runs the home as an alternative to abortion.
The confrontation between the city and the church will take place in Downey Municipal Court, after the city in the next week files criminal misdemeanor charges and seeks to close the home if it is not evacuated by then, said city Prosecutor Martin J. Mayer.
In an interview Wednesday, Howard said he would not take the women and children out of the home.
He admitted the violations, but said that city officials were being too "aggressive" in enforcing the law and are overlooking moral issues.
'Nowhere to Go'
"These people have nowhere to go," Howard said of the pregnant women, single unwed mothers and children staying temporarily at the church home.
"We saw a need and out of compassion we acted," Howard said. "The Bible says if you see the poor take them into your house, if you see the naked, clothe them."
Of the legal violations raised by city officials, Howard said, "It's a couple of people insisting that you've got to go by the rule book, you've got to go by the code. But what about the code of decency, what about the code of compassion? It's pretty cold out there at night to be out with nowhere to go."
Countered Mayer, "Without being melodramatic, this is the type of situation where you could have a fire and people die. You can't keep women and children in unsafe and hazardous conditions in violation of a half-dozen laws."
Mayer said the home must be evacuated in the next week because it is in violation of numerous fire, building and zoning codes. The church was given notice of the violations in January but has done nothing, leaving city officials with no alternative but to go to court, Mayer said.
The home needs automatic emergency exit bars on several doors, a fire wall and more lavatory facilities, Mayer said. The home also is located on residentially zoned property and a year ago was illegally converted from a church schoolhouse, Mayer said.
The charges the city will file against the church are for a variety of violations, including 10 of the city fire code, Mayer said, adding that the building code infractions are so numerous that the city has lost count. Each charge carries a penalty of $500 and six months in jail, although Mayer said that in six years as city prosecutor, only one person has been sent to jail.
He added that in the event of a fire, the city may be liable to lawsuits because it did not act to correct violations that officials were aware of.
The city fire and building inspectors went to the home in January after receiving complaints from neighbors. Mayer said the city has given Howard preferential treatment because of the church's "humanitarian" work, saying that if the building was operated by a business, the city would have sought to close it after 10 days.
Howard admits the church has not made the required repairs.
"They say we've done nothing, and we haven't done much about their requirements because we don't have the money. We're willing to meet their codes. It's just a matter of the money and having the time," Howard said.
Howard estimates it will cost several thousand dollars to make the improvements demanded by the city. But he said the 75 members of his congregation do not have much money and what little they do have is being used to buy a house in La Puente for more than $100,000. That house would be used for another home for unwed mothers and single pregnant women.
Howard, 46, a diminutive former Navy coxswain and test driver for General Motors, is known as a prominent anti-abortionist who has led hundreds of marchers in protests at abortion clinics in Long Beach and Downey. The pastor, who has 11 children from two marriages, also has a five-day-a-week radio show that preaches against abortion.
He said some of the women at the church home are "society's rejects."
"They put a welfare check in their hand and pushed them off into some Skid Row motel. They need a lot of love--they've never had that," he said.
Howard said that some mothers at the home have been talked out of abortions by church volunteers that they met outside abortion clinics.
The home charges $200 a month per woman, plus $25 per child--with a maximum fee of $250 per month--which comes out of welfare checks, said Howard. If a woman is not on welfare and so cannot pay, Howard said, they are not charged.