Celebration Church Battling Chronic Vandalism, Drug Use, Threats by Area Homeless

Carmichael, CA (MPG)  |  Story by Jacqueline Fox
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Celebration Church, one of many in the community suffering the longstanding consequences. -- Photo by Paul Scholl

The pastor of Celebration Church in Carmichael says he, church staff, as well as staff at the preschool renting space on the church’s property are grappling with long-running acts of vandalism, drug use, threats of violence and at least one assault by local homeless individuals, prompting the small congregation to spend thousands on security measures and putting the church’s relationship with the school at risk.

Despite countless calls to the Sacramento County Sherriff’s department, and outreach to the office of County Supervisor Susan Peters for support, the issue remains a serious and ongoing one, according to the church’s Senior Pastor, Mike Fraga. Fraga said as recently as two weeks ago he found seven syringes, three of them still filled with liquid, a spoon, candles he said individuals were using to “burn their drugs down with,” as well as empty liquor bottles and trash on church property.

Fraga claims the church is doing everything any small congregation could do to address security issues for the church, as well as staff, parents and students at the Marconi Montessori School. The church relies on the school’s rental income for budgetary support. The school itself came to the church as a refugee two years ago following its closure due to arson at its former location.

Frustrated, Fraga has taken extreme and costly measures to address the concerns, beginning with the installation of two security cameras and a fence around the school over the last two years. When a homeless couple threw a cup of water in the face of the school’s director a few weeks ago, Fraga said he made the controversial decision to install a wrought iron fence around the entire perimeter of the church property. That project is underway.

“It’s just gotten so ugly,” Fraga said. “I think we are at about $30,000 now. That’s what we’ve spent on security so far. We don’t have a lot of money, but we have to do everything we can to protect the church, the school and the children.”

The preschool’s founder and director, Hiresha De Silva said most of the incidents seem to occur at night or on weekends between midnight and 6 a.m., often before daylight and when no police are around. No threats against children have been reported. Nonetheless, in winter, when it is still dark until almost 7 a.m. and teachers are arriving, issues of safety are heightened.

De Silva’s original school on Marconi Avenue was burned down weeks after opening in 2012 by an arsonist later convicted of that and other crimes. De Silva said she “lost everything in that fire,” adding that starting over again would be difficult and costly.

“I am very concerned, but I have worked very hard to build up our enrollment here,” De Silva said. “We started with nothing and now we have more than 60 families and children here.”

For congregants and church staff, exposure to the threats is most prominent, as the church faces the park where many homeless individuals tend to gather much of the time, Fraga said. But because he and his wife also live in a house roughly 200 yards from the church and directly across the street from the park, the issue couldn’t hit closer to home.

“I deal with this issue every day as a resident and a pastor,” said Fraga. “They know me and they know where I live.”

Vanessa McCarthy-Olmstead, deputy chief of staff for Supervisor Peters said she has only spoken with Pastor Fraga twice since October. She said she advised him to rely on the Sacramento County Sherriff’s homeless outreach program for support on the issues he’s confronting. Unfortunately, says Fraga, if law enforcement doesn’t witness the acts, the best they can do is issue tickets for trespassing, which carry few, immediate repercussions.

“I don’t usually make calls to the Sherriff’s office anymore because little changes,” said Fraga. “The day the school’s director was accosted, the deputy showed up but he never got out of the car.”

Calls to the Sacramento County Sherriff Department offices for comment were not returned.

Although located on North Avenue, Celebration Church is included in the Fair Oaks Boulevard Public and Business Improvement District (PBID) approved by voters in 2016. The PBID’s governing board, the Carmichael Improvement District (CID), is amidst initial contracting stages with a security company to address these types of concerns (See PBID Improvement District story on page 3 this issue). Fraga said although he did not vote in favor of the PBID, the church has paid its mandatory membership fees. He added it is unlikely Celebration will benefit from the PBID’s services, noting his experience has shown a patrolling security presence to address the issues he’s confronting has had little or no impact.

“When it takes 12 citations for trespassing before someone can be arrested, and police won’t look over the photos from surveillance, or even get out of the car, what good will a private security company do for us,” Fraga said.