The End of an Era: The departure of the men’s shelter from Grace

The End of an Era. What is God’s call for Grace Church now?

The news reports this week made public what had been clear to many of us since the beginning of the pandemic. The men’s homeless shelter that has been at Grace since 1984-5 will have a new permanent home funded by the City of Madison and Dane County. While the announced location fell through today, the City and County remain committed to finding a new, permanent location.

When the lockdown began in mid-March, Porchlight the agency operating the shelter, the city, and the county scrambled to find a suitable alternative. On March 30, shelter operations were moved to the Warner Park Community Center on the north side. The close quarters of Grace and the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist simply couldn’t provide adequate space for social distancing and for the health and sanitation protocols that were necessary to prevent widespread infection. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the space at Warner Park was much better suited for shelter operations and in spite of the transportation challenges, both staff and guests preferred the new facility.

As time went on and the pandemic continued, the possibility that shelter operations could return to the downtown churches became more and more unlikely. The city began seeking alternative locations for a permanent shelter and we at Grace began thinking about a future without the shelter. The announcement this week brought this period of uncertainty to an end.

There’s an enormous irony here. I have been at Grace since 2009 and for much of that time, my ministry has involved work with homeless people and around advocacy. Some years before I arrived, efforts to find a new location foundered on neighborhood opposition and political apathy. In the early 2010s, it took several years and several failed attempts to find a suitable location for a day resource center; a process that culminated with the opening of the Beacon in October, 2018.

At Grace, we had begun talking about the need for a new shelter. After extensive renovations funded by Epic in 2010, the shelter again was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Beyond that, the small size of the facility, its minimal accessibility to people with mobility issues, the fact that guests were forced to wait in the elements before entry, were ongoing problems that no amount of money could solve. For several years, we had conversations internally and approached downtown partners, city and county staff, and elected officials about the inadequacy of the current facility and the need for others to step up and take responsibility for solving the problem.

Our conversations were always cordial and supportive but they were also inconclusive. The former mayor asked us when we entered his office, “What’s your deadline?” Everyone agreed that a new shelter was desperately needed; but no one seemed willing to expend the political capital, or the time and energy to see it through. Finally, we began to work on our own. With the help of an outside consultant, we gathered a group of advocates, elected officials, and downtown stakeholders to begin the process of working toward a new shelter. The group had its first meeting in November 2019. In March 2020, the pandemic arrived in Madison.

The pandemic accomplished what we couldn’t. It demonstrated the inadequacy of the facility and raised to the level of emergency the urgency of developing an alternative. I’m enormously grateful to local governments, to the mayor and County Executive, to alders and supervisors, to county, and especially to city staff who have been working on this. A process I anticipated would take at least five years has reached a first, important milestone in a little over six months.

This does mark the end of an era. We received notice a few weeks ago that Porchlight would be terminating its lease as of the end of 2020. A relationship that has continued for thirty-five years with Porchlight and its predecessor agencies is coming to an end. Our identity as the church with the shelter is also coming to an end. Even as we celebrate the new beginning and look forward to a new purpose-built facility, we also take great pride in those people whose vision first welcomed the shelter to Grace, and the volunteers who supported it over the decades—the thousands who prepared and served meals over the years. For us at Grace, homeless ministry became part of our core identity; it attracted members and it shaped us as a congregation. We did more than welcome homeless people to the shelter; we welcomed them to our services and to our fellowship activities.

The shelter’s departure comes at a time of crisis in Madison’s downtown. The pandemic and protests have transformed our neighborhood. The downtown with its many restaurants, shops, the vibrant arts community, all have been devastated over the last six months. Despair and fear are palpable as one walks the empty sidewalks. 

Grace Church has been a presence on Capitol Square for over 175 years; our building dates from 1858. We have seen a lot over that time and the square has seen enormous change. This is a time of great uncertainty as we don’t know what life will look life after the pandemic. We don’t know whether many of the changes we have seen will be permanent. But as we look into that uncertain future and ponder what Grace’s identity and mission might be in the years to come, we must respond faithfully and creatively to the opportunities that present themselves. The departure of the shelter frees us to imagine new possibilities for our spaces and to explore new ways of connecting with our neighbors, including homeless people who will continue to live among us downtown.

Coincidentally, I had organized a meeting for tonight of our mission/outreach committee and our newly re-formed Master Plan Steering Committee, to begin a conversation about future ministry and mission at Grace and how our space might contribute that work. The public announcement of a new location underscores the importance of these conversations.