“The churches should do more” My response to those who say our response to need is inadequate

I’m told that elected officials and city staff have complained in connection with this week’s sub-zero temperatures, that churches should be doing more; for example, that they should open their doors 24/7 to people in need. Whether they mean we should offer temporary emergency shelter, or that our doors should literally be unlocked all of the time isn’t clear to me, and the comments have apparently been removed.

I suppose the logic runs something like this—we receive property tax exemptions as non-profits, we have facilities that can offer shelter, why don’t we do it? Well, we are doing it. Religious organizations provide the core of Madison and Dane County’s emergency shelter for the homeless: the Salvation Army, The Beacon, which though partially funded by city and county dollars, is operated by Catholic Charities. Then there is the Men’s Drop-In Shelter, operated by Porchlight, but housed at Grace Episcopal Church with overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist. Bethel Lutheran Church has also had a significant homeless ministry over the last years. This week, First Methodist and its Outreach Coordinator Karen Andro, received national media attention for offering their space as overflow shelter for families.

No doubt, any comments critical of churches would have excused the work of these downtown churches and religious organizations, aiming at other targets: the many neighborhood churches that dot the city, or perhaps, the megachurches that are mostly located in suburbs. But these churches also do their part, providing volunteer labor and funds, for example, helping to provide the meals at the Men’s Shelter 365 days a year, or supporting the Beacon, or by organizing food drives for food pantries and the like.

For many of these other churches, offering temporary shelter is unrealistic. I talked with one pastor on Friday who told me his church was 1 ½ miles from the nearest bus stop. Most of them are in unsuitable locations. But there are other problems. Temporary shelter, even on a short-term basis, requires incredible resources. Most churches lack the staff to operate such shelter. For example, our facilities are cleaned by a service that comes twice a week. We could not provide the necessary security. Our staff and volunteers are neither trained nor competent to deal with the issues raised by a large intergenerational group confined to a small space. Imagine a 75-year old volunteer trying to mediate and de-escalate a dispute between two men in their twenties, who might be mentally ill or high. In addition, volunteers would need to be vetted in advance. Our denomination requires, and quite rightly, that volunteers undergo training for the prevention of sexual abuse. We also carry out background checks, especially of volunteers working with children. We cannot accept the help of any random volunteer, and I’m sure the mayor and city staff understand why such measures are necessary.

This is the second Polar Vortex I’ve experienced since coming to Madison. I was reflecting this week how different it is in 2019 than it was the last time. Then, we scrambled day by day to make sure there were spaces for people to stay warm during the day. On MLK Day that year, with the libraries, and many churches closed in observance of the holiday and no day shelter, Grace Church opened its doors to more than 100 people who sought refuge with us. But we couldn’t have done it by ourselves. Karen Andro brought a group of volunteers from First Methodist to provide lunch and staff from the homeless ministry at Bethel as well as other volunteers and outreach workers offered their professional expertise. In 2019, the presence of the Beacon makes an enormous difference. And I’m so grateful for Catholic Charities, for Jackson Fonder, Executive Director, and the amazing staff and volunteers who help operate it.

I’m sure I speak for all other leaders of religious organizations throughout Madison who have met with people this week and throughout the year who are in need of food, shelter, or other services and who have seen the effects of these record-breaking temperatures on the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We are doing our part. Indeed, many of us are operating at or beyond our capacity in terms of our financial resources and our volunteer base.. The religious community will continue to do what we can, but to expect us to do more, in the midst of the long-term decline in American religion, changing demographics, and the amount of work we are already doing, comes across as nothing more than an attempt to shift blame and responsibility.  It is divisive, unhelpful, and counter-productive. In emergencies like this, the whole community needs to come together and cooperate on solutions.

 

So, rather than taking potshots or criticizing congregations and religious organizations for “not doing enough,” perhaps city officials ought to invite us into the conversation. I’m sure Dane County and the City of Madison have emergency plans in place for various natural disasters. Is there such a plan in place for another lengthy period of sub-zero temperatures? There certainly should be. Whether there is one or not, if city officials want congregations and religious organizations to “do their part,” they should invite us into the process, and work with us to develop a plan that will ensure no resident of Madison lacks shelter when temperatures hit -20.

Is Madison a “people” city or a “market” city?

Madison is gearing up for a mayoral election next year and it’s likely much of the campaign  will focus on the candidates’ vision for our city’s future. I came across this interview with one of the authors of Market Cities, People Cities and thought it offered insight into how we ought to think about Madison’s present and future:

When market cities are asked, “What’s the purpose of a city?” they say it’s to create jobs, to lure companies, to create regional wealth — and that is going to make a healthy, vibrant economy, and then life is good.

A people city will say the purpose of a city is to create a high quality of life for its citizens and to create equality between its citizens — to make life livable, healthy and sustainable.

That different assumption about what the city is for creates extremely different outcomes — from the city’s priorities to how it spends money to what it will decide when it’s forced to make decisions, which it always is.

[Residents] have a very different experience of living in these different kinds of cities.

Read the full interview here:

 

 

The erasure of sacred space at the Dane County Jail

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a spirited conversation of clergy and formerly incarcerated persons discussing the importance of spiritual care and sacred space in institutions of incarceration. The Dane County Jail is about to undergo long overdue renovations with a price tag of $76 million. It has come to the attention of chaplains and community members that current plans do not include dedicated space for worship or other religious gatherings.

On one level, this erasure of sacred space from the jail could be seen as another example of the departure of religion from public life and a sign of its waning significance in American culture. With fewer people participating in organized religion, why bother spending money on a space dedicated to worship and spiritual reflection? Religion and spirituality are simply a lower priority than other uses—such as mental health, physical fitness, and the like.

But I think there is something more significant at play. One of the themes that emerged from the panel discussion was the uniqueness of sacred space in an institution of incarceration. “Sacred” comes from a Latin word which means “to set apart.” In an institution where every aspect of one’s life is monitored, where one has no privacy, no silence, where surveillance is constant and absolute, having a place apart from that where one can attend to one’s spiritual needs without interruption or intrusion, is space that is at least for a brief time each week, free from the power of the carceral state.

In sacred space, people can sit, pray, worship. They can be still and know God. They can listen to the rhythms of their hearts, the yearnings of their souls, without the distraction of noise from people in the surrounding bunks. In sacred space, they can sense the moving of the Spirit in their lives, and respond accordingly. In sacred space, they can draw strength from others who are seeking the same solace, and receive counsel from supportive chaplains.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s office argue that there simply isn’t enough space, that other needs take precedence—medical beds, mental health, addiction. To separate out spiritual needs from other needs is misguided and unfortunate. In many cultures, spiritual health is deeply connected to mental health and physical health; one can’t heal the body without healing the soul, and if the soul doesn’t receive the attention it needs, neither body or mind can be fully healed.

It was clear from the formerly incarcerated people who spoke on Sunday, and clear too from my many conversations with formerly incarcerated persons, that many interpret their journeys spiritually, that they see the decisions they made that brought them into contact with the criminal justice system, and their experience in prison and jail, in spiritual terms. They see God at work in their lives, or their punishment as connected with their own sins and God’s forgiveness. To deny them space in the Dane County Jail to process their lives spiritually, to connect with others who are sharing similar journeys, and to find the solace provided by a religious tradition, is to rob them of one of the most important resources they need to transform their lives.

It’s unfortunate that the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and our Dane County elected officials do not care enough for the men and women incarcerated here that they are willing to commit resources to meet the spiritual needs of jail residents.

The Capital Times’s coverage of the Sunday event is here.

More background from Isthmus here.

The campaign to accommodate spiritual needs at the Dance County Jail has a facebook page.

Update on the Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center

the Beacon has been in operating since October 16, since it’s coming up on its 2-month anniversary. We received an update from Jackson Fonder, ED of Catholic Charities about how things are going. A few statistics tell part of the story:

  • Average attendance per day: 215
    Average children per day: 20
  • Total showers: 809
  • Total loads of laundry: 617
  • total lunches: 3,330

Behind those statistics are others. On one Saturday, 37 children were present. The racial makeup of guests reflects the deep racial inequities in our city: 42% white/caucasian; 51% African-American (For Madison overall, the percentage of whites is 75.7; 7.4% of the population is African American: Statistics from here: https://statisticalatlas.com/place/Wisconsin/Madison/Race-and-Ethnicity)

There are struggles because of the sheer numbers of guests they’ve been seeing, and especially the number of families with children. We also heard about safety and security concerns. In the next weeks, they will try to schedule meetings with neighbors and with neighborhood groups as we heard from some nearby businesses about issues that have arisen with the presence of this new facility and the guests its serves in the neighborhood.

Channel 3 aired a story on The Beacon yesterday: https://www.channel3000.com/news/the-beacon-is-helping-more-people-than-expected-needs-volunteers-and-donations/672238585

While the piece suggests that in-kind donations are welcome, the priority is now on the need for cash donations to meet this year’s and next year’s budget. It’s likely that they will have to pay for additional security presence for the foreseeable future.

To find out more about the Beacon, visit their webpage or Facebook

The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center will open! Finally!

Yesterday was the press conference and ribbon-cutting for The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center for the homeless that will open on October 16 on East Washington Ave. It is a wonderful facility that will offer basic necessities like showers and laundry, separate areas for families and single adults, and space for a wide range of services on the second floor.

I toured the facility a couple of weeks ago with members of Downtown Madison Inc.’s Quality of Life and Safety Committee, where discussion of such a facility has been on the agenda for at least six years. As the tour ended and we chatted about our reaction to the facility, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I recalled the years, all of the hard work and advocacy that were part of this process. I had occasion earlier in the work to go back through this blog and re-read some of my pieces advocating for a permanent day center, as well as my expressions of concern as we seemed to scramble every year with the onset of cold weather to provide somewhere for homeless people to stay warm during the day.

I became involved in efforts to establish a daytime resource center in 2011 when two events focused attention on the problem. The Central Library was scheduled to close for renovation and the State Capitol, which had traditionally served as informal daytime shelter for homeless people continued to restrict access in the wake of the protests in early 2011. Temporary facilities were provided in the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, but an effort began especially on the part of County government to locate and fund space for a permanent day center. I worked with people who had operated the temporary shelter during one of those winters to create a non-profit that would operate a new facility under contract from the County and over the next several years, several attempts were made to purchase property and begin the process of establishing a day center. Our group finally gave up out of frustration and sheer exhaustion and I turned my attention to other matters.

I was excited and more than a little skeptical when I learned that the County had acquired the property at 615 E. Wash for a permanent daytime resource center. It had purchased another property a few blocks away some time earlier but problems had arisen and given what had happened on past occasions, I suspected that a combination of neighborhood opposition, continued wrangling between the county and city, and the lack of an outside agency with a track record and adequate resources would probably result in failure at this location as well.

My skepticism was tempered when I had the opportunity to meet with Jackson Fonder, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, the agency that was granted the contract to operate the facility. His competence, excitement, and commitment to the project were obvious and as our first meeting ended, I offered to help with the effort in any way I could. Eventually, Fonder put together a Community Advisory Team consisting of representatives from across the community to offer feedback as the project developed. As a member of that group, it has been a great joy to see at close hand the project’s development, and to build relationships with people from business, government, and the non-profit sector.

It is also a great joy to see what a facility designed and built out for the purpose can look like. Fonder and his associates visited similar facilities across the country, volunteering in them as they visited. This exposure to other cities and other facilities helped clarify for them best practices related to the operations of a daytime resource center and think carefully and creatively about what services such a facility should provide.

As I left the gathering yesterday, I reflected on the significance of the lengthy and difficult process, the amazing results, and what we might learn for future such efforts in our community. Personally, I am immensely grateful for all those who participated in these efforts, and especially for county staff and elected officials who didn’t give up in spite of all of the problems they encountered over the years. I’m also incredibly grateful for Catholic Charities and for Jackson Fonder’s leadership.

I’m thrilled not only that homeless people will have shelter every day throughout the day but that The Beacon will offer access to the services homeless people need to improve their situation.

There’s one other thought that has been running through my head since I first toured the facility several weeks ago. Now we have a state-of-the-art daytime resource center. What might be possible if we made the same effort to create adequate overnight housing for single adults and for families? Our emergency shelter system is woefully inadequate both in terms of the quality of the facilities and in that they cannot provide for all of those in need, especially homeless families. The Beacon shows us what a well-designed facility can look like; it demonstrates that while it may have taken almost a decade, our community can find solutions to the problems we face. And it sheds a bright light on all of the other needs in our community that we still need to address.

Here’s a video tour of The Beacon:

Here’s an article on The Beacon from today’s Cap Times

The story from WKOW.

 

 

Update on the Beacon, Madison’s new day resource center

In around fifty days, the Beacon, Madison’s long-overdue day resource center for the homeless, is scheduled to open. It’s a project I’ve been involved in off and on for six years and I now serve on the Beacon’s Community Advisory Team. The Beacon is intended to provide a one-stop location for services for individuals and families, providing everything from showers and laundry facilities to lunch, employment and other services. Construction is nearing completion.

As with any project of this magnitude, there are bumps along the road. One of the most significant came to public attention this week when it was revealed that there is a significant gap in providing funding for ongoing operations. Details are here.

The community’s response has been disappointing. I read responses on social media from  homeless advocates that focused on the original process that resulted in granting Catholic Charities the contract to operate the Beacon. Advocates have also questioned the size of the annual operating budget. I would hope that advocates would focus their energies on the Beacon’s success.

The city is reluctant to provide additional funding. In the linked article, Jim O’Keefe suggested cutting the operating budget, even though it is based on in-depth study of best practices in such facilities across the country. And given the city’s track record with the Rethke Terrace Housing First project, where the operating budget didn’t initially cover the services necessary to succeed, its top priority should be providing adequate funding.

I’m optimistic that this problem will be solved and that the Beacon will open on schedule. It’s certainly the single most important development in our community’s response to homelessness since I arrived in Madison in 2009, and it may be the most important such development since the founding of the men’s drop-in shelter.

In the meantime, let’s encourage the stakeholders to sit down and figure out how to fund the Beacon in such a way that its mission to provide services to homeless people, to help them transition from the streets to permanent housing, and to flourish as human beings, is a success.

 

Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!