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Refuge unable to soothe neighbors

Leaders and the new landlord of the ministry fail to build trust with people who live near the new location despite a community meeting.

A contentious meeting Monday night solved little between the Refuge, which ministers to the homeless and working poor, and the organization's future neighbors.

Supporters of the Refuge continued to say residents' fears are unwarranted and repeated their pledge to be good neighbors.

Representatives of two neighborhood associations remained unconvinced and said the Refuge would lower property values.

And the prospective landlord, who says he is caught in the middle, appears to be holding firm in his resolve to sign a three-year lease with the Refuge. Michael Noble, the owner of the storefront at 689 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N, said he plans to sign the papers Friday.

Noble, who organized Monday night's meeting in the hope of making peace between the two sides, said he was pleased that everyone had a chance to air their differences.

However, he added, "I don't think that anything was solved (Monday) night. I wanted people to know that I am concerned and I do have a financial investment in that neighborhood and the last thing I want is to see my property value go down."

That's exactly what will happen, said property owners and residents at the gathering in Noble's empty building.

The Refuge, which is leaving its 328 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N facility because the building in which it is located has been sold, feeds as many as 175 people Sundays through Thursdays. It also holds church services and Bible classes and hosts Christian rock concerts for youth on weekends.

Neighbors say they are concerned about the lack of parking. They also worry about loitering, panhandling, shoplifting and boisterous behavior by the Refuge's clients.

Nadine Smith, who does not live in the Uptown neighborhood but owns apartments that she plans to rent, said her own investigation of the Refuge proves "it's not going to do any good for our neighborhood."

"They made many promises about being good neighbors, but they're not practicing that now," she said Tuesday. "There is a tremendous amount of animosity towards them on the block where they're presently located."

Smith said she visited the Refuge's current headquarters and found it "unbelievably unclean . . . filthy, dirty."

She also spoke with surrounding property owners.

"The best quote came from the pawn shop owner next door. The owner said there would be a celebration on this block when they leave. A city employee stated to me that they operated on the knife's edge in terms of compliance with codes and fire issues," Smith said.

"I think whether or not you agree with what they are doing, they have failed to be good neighbors where they are located and despite their promises, there is no reason to believe that they would change when they move up the street."

Reading from a four-page police report that listed incidents that supposedly originated at the Refuge's address during the past 24 months, Smith added, "There were 112 incidents in two years. What other church has 112 incidents with the police in so many months? When we see things like aggravated assault, grand theft, loitering, narcotics, noise, that's just a little sampling that's odd for a church."

Noble, who was handed a copy of the report, admits it is troubling.

"That concerns me," he said. "The Refuge's response to that is that some of those calls were generated by them."

It's the type of explanation that infuriates Ingrid Comberg, president of the Uptown Neighborhood Association.

Every concern raised by neighbors and property owners was someone else's fault, she told the Rev. Bruce Wright and his supporters Monday night.

Though she got some of her questions answered during the meeting, Comberg said she is still dissatisfied.

"For me, what is interesting is that the people who support the Refuge and are their board members don't live in our neighborhood. . . . Even the pastor is not there when the concerts are taking place. It's something they put in our neighborhood and tell us what is good for us," she said.

Dwight Lawton, a former businessman and member of Lakeview Presbyterian Church, lives in the southern area of the city. He was there to support the Refuge.

"I have participated in events down there. I have gotten to know Bruce Wright and learned about their work," he said.

"They are doing what a church is supposed to do. I think this is the classic situation of property rights versus human rights. I understand the concerns of the neighborhood and I really admire the landlord for putting together the meeting, because I'm a believer that's the way problems should be solved. I think there are concerns the Refuge has to hear. I think they can work it out."

Hope Rowland, another Refuge supporter, said the organization is doing work often neglected by mainstream churches.

She said her church, Woodlawn Presbyterian, provides at least two meals for Refuge clients each month as well as clothing and other needs.

"'I think it is important that they stay right there in the area they are in," she said. "They (neighbors) were bringing up issues such as parking. I have never been to the Refuge and never found a parking space. . . . If your clients are on foot, you don't have a problem."

Nonetheless, neighborhood leaders say they are concerned about parking, especially during the youth concerts. And the owners of the nearby Saigon Market became emotional as they told those gathered Monday that they already feel the effects of the Refuge's clients. Though the ministry is a few blocks away, its clients beg, shoplift and sleep in front of their store, the shop's owners said.

In any event, Noble appears prepared to provide the Refuge with a new home in the neighborhood.

"I know that Mr. Noble is a businessman. It's understandable," said Mrs. Comberg. "He doesn't live here either. It's his right. He doesn't realize that his property value would go down."

But Noble said he is as concerned about his property as others. He has written several conditions into the lease with the Refuge, he added.

"If they don't abide with them, I can have them out in 30 days," he said.