Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 2: Homelessness, Part 1

Among the things that attracted me to Grace Church was the presence of the men’s shelter and the possibility of re-engaging with ministry and advocacy around homelessness. Back in the 1980s when I was studying for the MDiv, I did my field education at First Baptist Church of Boston (this was long before I became Episcopalian). Part of my work there was to help the congregation think about how it might engage the growing homeless population in Boston’s Back Bay and to make connections with other churches and social service agencies who were responding to people experiencing homelessness. As my journey took me away from ministry and toward academics, and as we moved away from urban Boston, those experiences faded into the background and I was interested in seeing how things had changed in the 25 years that had passed since my time at First Baptist.

A couple of months after arriving at Grace and after learning about policies and procedures at the shelter and beginning to explore the larger context of homelessness, service providers, and advocacy in Madison, I made a phone call to an old friend back in Boston. Jim had been a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School and with another classmate had founded a shelter in the basement of a Harvard Square church while students. 25 years later, he was still running a shelter, this one in another church on the other side of Cambridge Common. I described to him what I had learned and said that it seemed like Madison was in a time-warp, that service providers, government, and advocates were doing and saying the sorts of things that we saw in Boston in the early 80s. Jim confirmed my suspicions and shared with me what he was doing in the shelter he operated and what a more humane system, focused on the dignity and improving the lives of the guests might look like.

In February 2010, 6 months after I arrived at Grace, an article describing conditions in the shelter at Grace was published in Isthmus.It unleashed a storm of controversy at Grace and among supporters and staff of Porchlight and homeless advocates. It caught the eye of people at Epic Software and eventually Epic funded a long-overdue and much-needed renovation of the facility.  They upgraded the kitchen, showers, repainted, replaced the flooring, provided new bunks and storage lockers. It was an transformation.

What it couldn’t was solve the underlying problems of the shelter space. It was and remains a church basement. It is minimally accessible for disabled people (a jerry-rigged system allows access via wheelchair). It isn’t large enough to accommodate the number of men seeking shelter there, so every night, a group walk from there several blocks to St. John’s Lutheran Church on E. Washington Ave., where they sleep on mats on the floor. In the winter, First Methodist Church also serves as an overflow shelter on weeknights. All guests pass through Grace for intake and the evening meal, returning for breakfast as well. When the doors of the shelter open in the evening, the men line up in Grace’s courtyard, where they wait unprotected from the weather.

The shelter came to Grace in the early 1980s on a one-year, temporary basis and has remained there because of complacency and the difficulty of developing alternative solutions. Over the years of my ministry, I have struggled with my own and Grace’s role in all of this. I have made mistakes as I seek to advocate for improved facilities while supporting the important work that takes place here. I have been the target of neighbors’ and community members’ ire because of the presence of the shelter at Grace and also the target of advocates’ anger and criticism because of the conditions in the shelter and the treatment of its guests by Porchlight staff.

But what has been most heartbreaking for me are the memories of the tragedies. One Christmas Eve early on in my ministry, I came out of the early service to find churchgoers standing around a homeless man who had been dropped off from a hospital stay. He was immobile, having seizures on the sidewalk. Shelter staff refused to help because he wasn’t ambulatory. We called 911 and when the ambulance and police came, they told us that while they would take him to the ER, it was very likely he would be brought back here that night.

Then there was the Polar Vortex of 2014, when a man died on the steps of Grace’s tower entry. He had come in to the shelter in -20 temperatures, and with a companion was walking over to one of the overflow shelters. He collapsed and died of heart failure. His death was a tragedy, but it also should have demonstrated to everyone the inadequacy of a system in which necessary and permanent shelters were labeled “overflow.”

You can read all of my blog posts on homelessness by clicking here. They are in reverse chronological order. If you’re interested in how my views have changed (if they have changed, you should start at the very beginning). I will continue my reflections on the last ten years in later posts, including the long struggle for a day resource center and what the future may hold.