'We need help': L&I officials close church's homeless shelter due to unsafe conditions following fire

Antionette Lee
September 09, 2019 - 6:05 pm

WEST PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Bishop Benjamin Peterson appeared heartbroken as he sat in his makeshift office, a room in the church that also once housed someone in need of a home.

Licenses and Inspections officials ordered the historic West Philly church to cease operations after it was ravaged by a three-alarm fire more than two weeks ago.


On Monday, officials started locking the doors of Greater Bible Way Temple, which also operates a homeless housing unit. L&I issued the order Friday and gave the people living in the shelter, which is adjacent to the church, until Monday at noon to leave the premises.

More than a dozen people from the shelter packed their belongings into U-Haul trucks.

"I've seen them move in here with virtually nothing," said Peterson. "Now, they're moving out with a bed and a TV."

L&I inspectors ordered the shelter to close due to "deplorable and unsafe living conditions," including an inoperable fire alarm, an insect infestation, a compromised electrical system, and leakages and water damage throughout the building. 

The Aug. 27 fire ravaged the 115-year-old building, leaving the roof charred and the infrastructure partially collapsed. The front stone structure is still in tact.

Peterson said the fire was accidental and caused by a worker's blow torch he was using while making repairs on the roof that day. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Now, Peterson is concerned about the people he cared so much for in the shelter. He said if his home was large enough, he would take them in. 

City officials referred the people living in the building to the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services for assistance.

Anthony Cherri lived in the church's shelter for two years. When the fire broke out, he lost a lot of material items, but he's more concerned about losing a home — a happy home. 
"It's hard to say, but I feel real bad for all of us that lived in the building," he said. "I wish I had more time to get out."

L&I inspectors also advised that the church demolish the remainder of the roof as soon as possible. If conditions worsen, they say they'll intervene again to protect public safety. 

The church hired a private engineer, who assessed the building after the fire and again on Sept. 4. The report, obtained by KYW Newsradio, stated that most of the church's roof was destroyed, as well as a portion of the side walls. But the front wall with the bell tower, according to the report, is in "generally good shape," just in need of some required repairs. 

The church also created a GoFundMe page to help raise the money for repairs. 

"We need help now to rebuild. We need help to go along with the insurance we do have, to restore the temple, to just," Peterson paused, "be able to help people."