I had one of those interesting experiences today that was both hopeful and clearly demonstrated the challenges we face as a society, nation, and state in dealing with difficult issues. Soon after arriving at the office, my Senior Warden who was waiting for a vendor, asked me what I had planned. Today was supposed to be devoted to finalizing plans for Lent and Confirmation classes and after dealing with several administrative matters, I set to focus on that work. But then I learned that a press conference was scheduled for the morning in the Men’s Drop-In Shelter in our basement. While we are landlords and not operators of the shelter, publicity, whether good or bad, reflects directly on Grace Church, so it’s my policy to be present when press and elected officials come to the shelter.
There were conflicting reports on who was going to be at the press conference but eventually the parties in question arrived—a group of Republican legislators who had been involved in the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, established by the previous Governor and chaired by the former Lieutenant Governor. The legislators were using the press conference to announce the introduction of a number of bills addressing homelessness.
I’ve attended any number of press conferences called by social service, agencies, religious organizations, or advocacy groups and in my experience, often the press conference is held with no press in attendance. This time, because of the involvement of legislators, there were representatives from print and TV media. I had a chance to meet several of the legislators before the beginning of the event and shared with them some about the shelter. The conversations were cordial and the legislators were genuinely interested in learning more about the shelter and about homelessness in Madison. Karla Tennes, Executive Director of Porchlight, Inc. was in attendance and spoke at the press conference, and Shelter Manager Preston Patterson also was present.
When the cameras came on, and after the prepared remarks, the tone of the room and the event quickly shifted. There may have been a question about the content of the bills, but immediately, reporters began to highlight the partisan divisions, first by pointing out that no Democratic legislators were present, and then by changing the subject entirely to hot-button issues. The reporters got their soundbites and the press conference ended.
After all but one of the reporters had left, we continued our conversation. The Shelter manager described in detail shelter operations, policies and procedures, and both he and Porchlight Executive Director Karla Tennes talked about the involvement of volunteers in helping to provide 2 meals every day to shelter guests. Our conversation continued for more than twenty minutes. Legislators learned a great deal about what takes place only a few yards away from the State Capitol.
I am not one to bash the press—they are crucial to the survival of democracy and to the creation of a civil society, but I was struck by the immediate shift in tone and topic when they began to engage with the elected officials. The issue at hand, homelessness, didn’t really seem to interest them. Instead, the story they wanted to tell was the story of political conflict and political partisanship, and if they had to attend a press conference in a homeless shelter to get that story, so be it.
In my conversations with legislators and staff, we talked about issues like homelessness and opioid addiction that should matter to everyone and around which we need to come together across our divisions to find solutions. From what I could tell, there is genuine interest in such bipartisan efforts. That Governor Evers has announced he will chair the Interagency Council on Homelessness seems to be a move in the right direction.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we might create opportunities for conversations across the deep divisions in our state and society. Today made me both more hopeful about that possibility and more aware of the importance of such efforts in Madison and across the state.
Here’s how Madison.comis reporting the story.