In a move likely to draw the ire of Salvadoran activists, officials at Los Angeles’ oldest church have decided to stop housing Central American refugees and other homeless people overnight--ending a key element of the controversial declaration of sanctuary at the downtown Roman Catholic parish.
Father Albert Vazquez, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, commonly known as La Placita, said the decision--effective at the end of February--was made reluctantly and came because of repeated sanitary and housing violations found by city and county officials.
Vazquez said inspectors threatened to fine the church up to $1,000 for allowing as many as 200 people to sleep there each night. The clergyman said the decision, scheduled to be formally announced today, would have no effect on the church’s sanctuary status or on its commitment to help Salvadoran refugees.
“I want to help these people with dignity and we’re not doing that right now,” said Vazquez, who became pastor in August. “There are no showers and the one toilet frequently is backed up.”
The priest’s comments, however, quickly drew criticism from many of the Salvadoran refugees who attended services at the church early Sunday. They contended that the move was a further erosion of the political activism established at the church in the early 1980s by Vazquez’s predecessor, Father Luis Olivares.
“This new priest has turned his back on the Salvadorans who come to the church for help,” contended Rafael Montes, 22. “People in El Salvador hear about La Placita and they come here to get away from the violence in my homeland, hoping to find comfort and a helping hand. What they get instead is a foot, kicking them out the door.”
Added fellow Salvadoran Carlos Perez, 19: “La Placita now joins the heartless practice of a lot of people in Los Angeles . . . they tell you to go away.”
Olivares, who is awaiting reassignment after being found to have AIDS, said he was disappointed with the decision, but he refused to criticize Vazquez.
“This is definitely a step in tightening up the definition of the sanctuary we were helping the church to provide,” Olivares told The Times Sunday.
He said that city and county health and building and safety inspectors have checked sleeping arrangements in the church’s basement meeting hall in the past, but added that he never got an order to stop letting the homeless sleep there.
Olivares declared the church a sanctuary from U.S. immigration authorities in the early 1980s. The former pastor used La Placita as a platform to espouse liberal causes, including opposition to U.S. involvement in El Salvador.
Since then, tens of thousands of homeless people were housed, on a rotating 30-day basis, at the church under Olivares.
Since Vazquez became pastor, he has been criticized by Salvadoran activists at La Placita for reversing some of Olivares’ policies and cooperating more often with police in trying to stem violence near the church.
In recent months, members of Communidad de Base-- a group of activist refugees who worship at La Placita--have disrupted masses to protest the new church leadership.
As a result of the decision, Catholic Charities and La Placita will refer Salvadoran refugees and other homeless people to shelters throughout Los Angeles. In addition, other agencies will help in finding work for them.