On siting a new purpose-built men’s shelter

I wrote this letter to the Mayor and Alders in advance of Tuesday’s common council meeting:

April 28, 2021

Dear Mayor and Alders:

For over 35 years, from 1985 through March 2020, Grace Episcopal Church opened its doors to some of Madison’s most vulnerable residents, hosting the Men’s Drop-In Shelter. For more than 11 of those years, I have served as Grace’s Rector (Senior Pastor). In countless meetings and encounters, I have received praise and gratitude from Madison residents and political leaders for our commitment to people experiencing homelessness. I have also had many uncomfortable encounters and been subjected to criticism from downtown business owners and residents who blame the shelter for attracting undesirable people, causing crime, driving down property values, and forcing downtown residents to move away. My response to them usually focused on reminding them that like others, people experiencing homelessness enjoy being downtown because of all that it has to offer, including a wide range of human services beyond the shelter. I also encouraged them to recognize that people experiencing homelessness are members of our community who deserve every opportunity to flourish.

I and members of Grace knew the importance of the shelter we housed. We were also aware of its limitations. Over the last years, it had become clear to us that our facilities were inadequate to the needs placed on us by our commitment to our guests. We began internal conversations about how best we might move the larger community to work toward a new purpose-built men’s shelter. In conversations with downtown stakeholders, homeless service providers, and advocates, we discerned the monumental task ahead of us. We met with city and county staff, Alders and County Supervisors, the former mayor and the County Executive. In each of those conversations, we were given the same advice: Unless we set a deadline (i.e., essentially evict the shelter), local government would take no action. Such a step was inconceivable to us. Not only would it be a public relations disaster; we also regarded it as a sin against the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor.

At an impasse, we contracted with Susan Schmitz to help us determine whether there was sufficient interest in energy in the wider community to work toward a new shelter. By November 2019, she was able to convene about twenty people representing homeless service providers and advocates, downtown stakeholders, elected officials, and city and county staff to begin working toward this goal. I expected that it would take 5-10 years and that finding a suitable location would be much more difficult than raising the money to purchase a property, design and build a facility, and fund operations. Then the pandemic arrived. With little fanfare the shelter left Grace on March 30, 2020, leaving us with an empty basement. I knew that shelter operations would never return to Grace in any likeness to its previous form. Our spaces were woefully inadequate, not up to current building codes, and potentially dangerous to the health and safety of guests. The responsibility for finding a new permanent location was now the responsibility of local government.

I don’t know whether the Zeier Rd. location is the best site for a new shelter. I don’t know whether other sites are still being considered or would be better suited for the purpose. I do know that any site will arouse steep opposition from neighbors who fear for property values, quality of life, and personal safety. 

I also know that in the 35 years that we have hosted the men’s shelter, we have continued to offer a full range of programming and worship with no major disruption or detrimental impact. Of course, staff and volunteers were often uncomfortable to see or pass through the line of men waiting at intake. On cold winter Sundays especially before the Beacon opened, we would often have shelter guests wander into our services in search of a warm space to hang out. I would instruct our ushers to leave them be and only ask them to leave if their snoring became a nuisance. The first Monday evening of each month, we welcomed shelter guests and others from the community into our parish hall for a sit-down meal with live music. Long after finishing their meals, you could see some men lingering to listen to the music, often with volunteers (teenagers, twenty-somethings, even women in their 70s) sitting next to them, sharing the joy of live performance and a bit of common humanity.

Certainly, we would find abandoned belongings, trash, and other items on our property. But the urine on our stone walls is as likely the product of college students wandering home at bar-time as it is from a homeless man who can’t find a public restroom. The occasional intoxicated person sleeping it off on our steps or the individual experiencing a mental health crisis may not have been a shelter guest the night before or indeed ever. I doubt the number of such incidents was greater at Grace than at any other downtown property. Unfortunately, no corner of our city or nation can be completely safe from all threats.

Living, working, worshiping in close proximity to a homeless shelter presents challenges but those challenges should be shared by the whole community, not just by a few neighbors. As a city and a county it is our responsibility to provide a welcome environment for all who live here, whether their residence is a homeless shelter or a luxury condo. If the purchase of the Zeier Rd property is approved or if another site is chosen, I pledge to do what I can to help the shelter’s immediate community welcome their new neighbors.

Sincerely,

The Rev’d Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser

1 thought on “On siting a new purpose-built men’s shelter

  1. Thank you for writing this letter to the Mayor and Alders, Father Jonathan. It is a very good representation of our experience at Grace and of our responsibility as Christians.

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