A little background about our efforts toward a new shelter

I didn’t sleep well last night. I rarely do on Saturday nights because I’m always a bit worried about Sunday. I worry whether my sermon will proclaim the Gospel and feed the souls of the people who gather at Grace. I fret about the logistics of worship. I wonder whether there will be people missing from the pews or whether I will learn of serious illness or the death of a member.

Last night, I was worried about something else. I knew Dean Mosiman’s article on our nascent efforts toward a new men’s shelter was going to be published today and I was worried about what would appear in it and what the public’s, and Grace members’ reaction would be. He had spent an hour interviewing me for the piece a couple of weeks ago; and we spent around a half hour on the phone on Thursday as he talked through the article, checked facts, and whether I was comfortable with the quotes from me he was using.

We’ve been working toward this for over five years. Back when we first began conversations at Grace about long-overdue renovations, we included some tweaks to the shelter facilities in our early plans. We ended not including that work in our capital campaign and renovations for a complicated set of reasons, including the prospects of a major redevelopment of much of the block. At the same time, we continued internal conversations and had some exploratory conversions about the possibility of a new shelter with some stakeholders in the community.

We started those conversations because our concerns about conditions and adequacy of the facility. The basement that is used as shelter is severely overcrowded at intake and at meals. It is not ADA-compliant. Guests are forced to wait outside in inclement weather.  There are permanent “overflow” shelters and inadequate space to provide ancillary services including counseling and case management. On top of all that, the facilities are likely nearing the end of their lifespan.

Over the last years, we’ve talked to business leaders, downtown developers, elected officials, city and county staff, and other service providers. While there is almost universal agreement that the facility at Grace is inadequate, we have been told repeatedly over the years that unless and until we set a deadline for the shelter’s departure from Grace, there will be no movement towards a new shelter.

Our response to that has always been and will continue to be that we will not, nor can we, set a deadline. The men’s shelter came to Grace in 1984-1985 on a one-year temporary basis. It will remain at Grace until a new shelter that is adequate to the needs and designed for the purpose opens. The shelter is central to our identity as a church and it is central to our mission and purpose in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

With no one else in the community willing to take the lead, beginning work toward a new shelter fell on us. We knew that it was well beyond our capacity as a congregation both financially and in terms of expertise. We knew that we would have to bring together a coalition of people who were committed to the effort and could move it forward.

When we first began thinking of who might help us move this project along, we immediately thought of Susan Schmitz, former President of Downtown Madison, Inc. She is committed to working on the issue of homelessness, is widely respected in the community, and has relationships across the city, with elected officials, city and county staff, and downtown stakeholders. As she worked, it became clear to us that moving forward was definitely a possibility, and so we took the next steps of putting together a steering committee that would work on the project.

Meanwhile, a group of shelter providers from the Homeless Services Consortium had begun discussing what a new shelter might look like: what best practices were in place across the country, what Madison’s needs might be, and the like. Members of that group and representatives of Grace Church, as well some additional city and county staff went up to St. Paul to tour Higher Ground, a new shelter operated by Catholic Charities.

That tour was transformative, at least for me. I saw the possibility of what a shelter might, no should look like. It has a roomy reception area large enough to accommodate all guests at intake. There are bunks with space for personal storage and charging outlets. There are areas for “pay-to-stay” where people who have jobs but lack the financial resources to rent can stay and at the same time save money for a security deposit or first month’s rent. Not only did our tour offer a vision of what might be; it also provided a stark and embarrassing contrast to what we have now.

The way ahead is enormously challenging and full of potential landmines. Given my experience with early efforts at locating a day resource center and the neighborhood outcry over the Salvation Army’s redevelopment plans, I know that much could go wrong.

I don’t think we have a choice. As Mosiman points out in the article, conditions in the shelter at Grace are deteriorating and no amount of renovation can overcome its lack of space and inadequacy. The “overflow” shelters are equally problematic and the host congregations are discussing their future plans. The model we have used in Madison for the last 35 years is no longer viable. The urgent need for a new shelter Is a result of the growing population of homeless people, the unsustainability of our current facilities, and the desperate need to provide guests with the services they need to find permanent housing and become flourishing members of our community.

There’s one more thing. As I said earlier, the shelter is at the heart of Grace’s identity as a congregation and central to our mission. When it is relocated, it will leave a huge hole at the heart of who we are. We have been committed to serving homeless men for 35 years. We have received accolades from the community as well as considerable criticism. Even though we are only technically the landlords of the shelter, it is very much part of us. As this process moves forward, we will also be prayerfully discerning how we might continue to minister to homeless people, perhaps in creative, new ways, and also we will seek to hear where God is calling is in the future.

I provide a little more history about the homeless shelter and my reflections on ministry to the homeless in articles here and here.


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