EAST HARLEM — A century-old church set to complete a multi-million dollar restoration wants to install a fence they say will protect the homeless people that sleep on the church steps every night.
Saint Cecilia Catholic Church has stood at 120 East 106th St. since 1883. More than 500 people attend their Spanish-language services on Sunday mornings.
The church is particular popular with Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, said member Alejandro Torres, 66.
“It’s the best church in Harlem,” he said in Spanish.
The church is also popular with a group of homeless people who have been sleeping on the church’s stoop for years. They mostly keep to themselves and eat at the food pantry sponsored by the church, said Wanda Santos, 50.
“They don’t bother anybody,” she said.
To cap off a year-long restoration project, that involved repairing the crumbling facade and roof, the church wants to install a four-foot fence in front of the steps. A similar fence was installed with the church in 1883 but was removed before the building was landmarked, said Arthur Sikula of Arthur John Sikula Associates, the organization working on the restoration.
“We are interested in not necessarily keeping people out,” Sikula said. “But right now if a homeless person were to sleep on these steps overnight — and they do — anybody could have easy access to that person. So if this were to be in place where any homeless person would want to sleep overnight there is at least a four-foot gate.”
People who want to sleep in the steps could easily climb over the short fence, he added.
The gates will also increase the safety outside the church, specifically from columns near the entrance, Sikula said.
“Right now one could be walking along the street and behind these columns could be a haven for somebody hiding so we don’t want that to happen,” he said.
Because the church is landmarked, they need approval to install the fence. The local community board approved their request Tuesday.
If the project is approved, the church hopes to have the fences installed by the end of the year, the architect said.
Santos, who is not a member of the church but has been visiting family who lives across the street for 25 years, felt uncomfortable with the idea of the fence.
“For me, I think it’s all nonsense,” she said. “If they are going to sleep there, let them sleep there.”
Sikula told the community board Tuesday that while they don’t want to promote or endorse homelessness, their intention is not to push people away. If that were the case, they would've proposed a much larger fence, he said.
“[The pastor] specifically directed me not to have the high fences — because we showed him that option,” Sikula said. “He said, ‘No, I do not want to keep homeless people off of the steps.’”
The church’s pastor is currently visiting a religious order in Africa and was not available for comment.
Given everything the church does for the community, including programs for youth, seniors and a food pantry for the homeless, Torres does not believe the fence will be an issue.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” he said. “The church does a lot for the homeless so I don’t think anyone can say they are being pushed out.”