Faced with increasing problems involving transients and the homeless, church officials from several cities packed a meeting room at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glendale on Tuesday night to discuss safety and security issues with authorities.
The two-hour church safety seminar--believed to have been a first in Glendale--was held in response to heightened concerns after August's attempted rape of an elderly woman inside Incarnation Roman Catholic Church--a block from St. Mark's.
Glendale Police Sgt. Rick Young outlined security options and answered several questions from more than 40 people representing 14 Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Glendale, North Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Filiberto Gutierrez Maldonado, 34, a transient, was arrested in the attack and remains in jail awaiting a pretrial conference in Pasadena Superior Court.
Other transient-related problems had been less severe, such as petty theft of wine, vandalism or break-ins, church officials say.
"We are looking into a better security at the church," Randy Slaughter, a board member at Zion Lutheran Church's elementary school in Glendale, said after the meeting. "Maybe (the attack at Incarnation) made us all aware that crime can happen anywhere, even at a church."
But on Tuesday night, the crowd stayed away from questions regarding the attempted rape and how it might have been prevented. Instead, people asked how they should deal with transients in general.
A St. Mark's parishioner, for example, asked Young whether churches are putting themselves in danger when they allow transients or the homeless to use church facilities.
"A lot of people think we're Christians, we're supposed to help these people," he said. "(But) should we let them sleep in these benches out here? Are we causing a problem that could exist because of them?"
Young told the crowd that churches are better off referring the needy to groups such as the Salvation Army that are trained to provide shelter for the homeless.
"You are not equipped for a care center for the homeless," he said. By accepting their presence, "you're giving them a welcome sign" to return, he said.
A woman from La Crescenta said she wanted to know how she should respond to people who are becoming more belligerent in asking for money or food.
The sergeant encouraged her to call police for help in those cases because officers can take people into custody on suspicion of annoying a citizen in public.
"If they're found to be a danger to society they can be incarcerated," the sergeant said.
In an effort to ease the crowd's fears about transients, Young said people need to distinguish between those who are actually without homes and those who are local scam artists.
"Your truly homeless aren't aggressive," Young said. "They're meek and mild and friendly."
"(But) there are groups out there that just prey on the generosity of the people," he said in closing. They are "becoming more aggressive and more violent. . . . They have a better communication network as to which church gives. They're very well organized and know where they're going."
"It's a sad state affairs for our country."
Stacy Martin, a consultant from ADT Security Systems, and Kathy Allen, a Glendale police community service officer, also gave brief talks about appropriate security, such as lighting and portable alarm systems.
"Your best deterrents are noise and lights," Martin said. "If you are creating a lot of noise and your lights go on, the burglar is not going to stay at your home or church."
Allen said police offer a free security evaluation of property--a service that several church representatives later said they will ask for.
After the seminar, church leaders and parishioners said more meetings should be held so people can continue to share community problems.
"I think it's effective," said the Rev. Fernando Gomez of the Episcopal Church of the Magdalene in Glendale. "I think we need more of these kinds of meetings, not only in the city of Glendale, but in the whole (surrounding) neighborhoods."
Jim Botz, a member of St. Jane Frances Catholic Church in North Hollywood, said he and other church leaders will consider Young's suggestion about having people arrested for disturbing church operations.
"If some strangers started coming around, we would possibly take some of these steps," said Botz, who heads the church's four-day-a-week food distribution program for the needy. The church also runs a preschool.
"We do have problems with homeless people--probably the ones that need medical care are the most troublesome," he said. "It's a shame that we have to take these precautions when we're trying to help people."