Reflections on a decade of shared ministry, 3: Homelessness, part 2

The long quest for a day resource center for people experiencing homelessness could serve as a case study of how Madison’s political system, social service providers, and activists have failed the most vulnerable people in our community. It also provides lessons to anyone interested in developing new institutions or services in our city.

Back in 2011, I attended the first of a series of meetings of local political and civic leaders, service providers, and advocates that were convened to seek solutions to the lack of daytime resources for people experiencing homelessness. The problem became apparent because that the two places where many homeless people spent the days while the overnight shelters were closed were no longer available. The Capitol basement had been declared off-limits to homeless people during the protests in February and March, 2011, and the Central Library was about to close for two years of renovations. I was astounded when the meeting began with many of those present complaining about the then governor’s decision to close the Capitol—seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Capitol was a wholly inadequate space for a vulnerable population in need of many services. In other words, the urgency and extent of the need had gone unaddressed for decades. The stop-gap solutions that were in place were judged by many in the community to be perfectly adequate.

I’ve chronicled much of the story and my involvement in the efforts on this blog. Click on the Homelessness link and scroll down. Temporary shelters were funded for the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The County put money its operating budget to fund operations of a shelter and secured capital funds to purchase and build out a property. There were a number of locations proposed over the years but all of them fell through because of various reasons, including poor planning and community engagement by county staff and elected officials, neighborhood opposition, and simply unsuitable locations. Many of us who were most actively involved in these efforts over the years grew angry, frustrated, and finally abandoned the quest. Fortunately others persisted and other agencies stepped, most notably Catholic Charities, who received the contract to operate the Day Resource Center. Finally, the Beacon opened in 2018 and is currently welcoming as many as 250 people daily for meals, showers, laundry, and to help them connect with services.

I say this is a case study in how Madison has thought about and responded to homelessness over the decades because there was no effort to examine the adequacy of our response to the community’s needs and no effort to seek better solutions. And there’s also the blame game, seeking to deflect responsibility for the problems we face from ourselves to others—whether it be the former governor, Chicago, or some other entity or individual. It was only when the stop-gap solution collapsed that we admitted the problem and began to seek new solutions and better alternatives.

In some respects, we are at the very same place with regard to the overnight shelters. The Salvation Army is developing plans for new facilities at their E. Washington Ave. property that would more adequately address the needs of the groups they serve there: single women and families. It is also becoming more clear by the day that the current Drop-In Shelter housed at Grace with additional space at St. John’s Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church is inadequate to serve the number of homeless men in our community and to address their needs, providing assistance to help them find housing and connect them with services they need. For example, we lack the facilities to offer comfortable space for the one-on-one conversations with outreach workers and the building is only minimally accessible to people who lack mobility. It lacks air conditioning.

As we think about next steps in our response to the needs of our community, it is clear that the experience with the Day Resource Center will offer us important lessons as we seek to build community-wide support for significant changes in our system of emergency shelter. I, for one, look forward to this process.

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.

Touring Higher Ground St. Paul

On Monday, April 8, a group from Madison drove up to St. Paul to visit Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground shelterwhich opened in January 2017. Our group consisted of city and county staff as well as representatives from service providers and other interested parties like myself. It was an opportunity to visit a facility that had been designed for the purpose of providing overnight emergency shelter as we dream of a new shelter in Madison.

The scale of the project is breathtaking. The shelter itself provides 172 beds for men, sixty for women. In addition, on the second floor there are 48 pay-to-stay beds and ten medical respite beds. The upper floors provide193 additional SRO (single-room occupancy) beds. Opposite the shelter, another facility that will house daytime services as well as additional housing is under construction with completion scheduled for fall 2019. Overall the campus is the result of a public-private partnership and a successful $100 million capital campaign.

As we approached the shelter, we were greeted by homeless people who were hanging out on the broad plaza in front of the building. One shared a little bit about his life, another gathered us and offered a prayer. Inside, our formal greeting took place in the spacious intake area which is used for both the men’s and women’s sections of the shelter. We were given a brief history of the efforts to provide emergency shelter and then taken on a tour of part of the facility.

The stark difference between the Drop-In Men’s Shelter in Madison and Higher Ground was obvious at first glance. A spacious lobby accommodates guests at intake unlike the cramped hallway where intake occurs at Grace, requiring that men wait outside during cold and inclement weather. Inside the shelter is ample room for guests to sit. There are mats available for overflow. The bunks are efficiently and thoughtfully designed, offering electric outlets, USB ports, and storage lockers. Guests can reserve their bunk for the next night which gives them the opportunity to leave their belongings in the small lockable storage locker. The reservation policy means that there is relatively little turnover because the shelter operates at capacity year-round.

Preston Patterson, manager of the shelter at Grace, in the Higher Ground lobby

A shot of the men’s shelter area

The outdoor smoking area

a bunk showing storage locker and bedding

Our tour guides

The facility was light and airy. One of the features is an outdoor smoking area that is always accessible from the shelter. Benches and tables allow smoking guests to sit comfortably and engage in conversation.

The pay-to-stay area offers more seclusion and more storage space than the first-floor shelter. Guests pay a fee for each night, payable in advance. The money is held in escrow and as it accumulates up to $500 can be used toward permanent housing (first-month’s rent or security deposit).

a peek into the pay-to-stay area. The bunks are the same as below but there’s more storage and privacy

Because Higher Ground is not the only emergency shelter in St. Paul and there are facilities in nearby Minneapolis as well, policies and procedures can be both stricter as regards behavior and more flexible around limits on stay and the like. Some of them might not work in Madison.

One of the most difficult issues facing any discussion of building a new shelter in Madison is location. There is widespread consensus among government, service providers, and homeless advocates that any homeless shelter needs to be located downtown near transportation and other services. Higher Ground was built on property that was already owned by Catholic Charities. Initial attempts to locate it elsewhere faltered on neighborhood opposition.

I came away from the tour deeply impressed by facility’s design, by its operation, and by the commitment of the staff who led the tour. St. Paul can be proud of the facility that offers shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness, ensuring their dignity and offering them opportunities to move temporary to permanent housing as they seek to build lives of meaning and contribute to the greater good of the community.

It also reaffirmed my commitment to working with others in our city and county to create a purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our community and dedicated to helping those who seek shelter there to find permanent housing and to lead productive, meaningful lives.

The Future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace, updated

Yesterday I wrote:

In an important article examining the mayoral candidates’ position on housing issues, there   was a line that threw me for a loop:

Porchlight’s men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square will need to be moved due to redevelopment on the block…

After expressing my dismay to the author of the article, he added this sentence:

The current shelter is inadequate, and should be replaced, but won’t be displaced unless a replacement facility is created, said Rev. D. Jonathan Grieser, rector at Grace Episcopal.

I’m grateful for the conversation and for the clarification. A new shelter is needed, not to ease the way for another downtown development but because the current shelter is not adequate to serve the needs of our community.

The Future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace Church

In an important article examining the mayoral candidates’ position on housing issues, there   was a line that threw me for a loop:

Porchlight’s men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square will need to be moved due to redevelopment on the block…

This is not now true and will never be true. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter will move from Grace only when our community comes together to create a new purpose-built shelter designed according to best practices, and adequate to the needs of the guest who seek shelter there.

The Drop-In Shelter came to Grace on a one-year trial basis in 1984-1985. That it remains here 35 years later reflects Grace’s commitment to the most vulnerable members of our society, and that our community has lacked the political will to develop an alternative, more adequate, and permanent solution.

In fact, Grace’s leadership has begun a conversation on creating a new men’s shelter. We have met with homeless providers, city and county elected officials, and other community leaders. The counsel we have consistently received is that unless we set a deadline, we will never build enough momentum and urgency to create change. And that has been our dilemma. Our commitment to the men who sleep at Grace each night (and at the overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist) is such that we could never issue an ultimatum. So we have slowly begun building support for our ultimate goal of a shelter that our city and county can be proud of.

Just last Sunday, we offered an update to our congregation on where we are with these efforts. In the coming weeks, we hope to contract with a consultant who will help us gauge community and governmental interest in such a project and solicit leadership from a broad representation of the community in our effort. If the climate seems favorable, we will move forward with the next steps: finding a location and beginning to seek funding. It’s a long-term project. Given my experience with Day Resource Center (the Beacon), I anticipate it taking anywhere from five to ten years.

A possible shelter move, while complicated by the development proposal for the new Wisconsin History Museum, is independent of any redevelopment plans. While Grace Church has been informed as the development proposal has moved forward, we are not currently involved in the project.

Ultimately, there are questions about the future use of our property, especially the west wing which houses the men’s shelter and our food pantry. Both of those entities provide essential services and are central to Grace’s response to the proclamation of Jesus Christ to feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. Similarly, any development that  Grace undertakes on our property will have to support our mission and ministry and be consistent with the gospel mandate to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim justice in the heart of the city.

My hope is that our community comes together in support of our effort. I also hope that this issue will become a central element of the mayoral campaign. Whatever vision for Madison that the candidates have, a great city is great only to the extent that all of its residents are able to flourish.

Homelessness and Political Partisanship

I had one of those interesting experiences today that was both hopeful and clearly demonstrated the challenges we face as a society, nation, and state in dealing with difficult issues. Soon after arriving at the office, my Senior Warden who was waiting for a vendor, asked me what I had planned. Today was supposed to be devoted to finalizing plans for Lent and Confirmation classes and after dealing with several administrative matters, I set to focus on that work. But then I learned that a press conference was scheduled for the morning in the Men’s Drop-In Shelter in our basement. While we are landlords and not operators of the shelter, publicity, whether good or bad, reflects directly on Grace Church, so it’s my policy to be present when press and elected officials come to the shelter.

There were conflicting reports on who was going to be at the press conference but eventually the parties in question arrived—a group of Republican legislators who had been involved in the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, established by the previous Governor and chaired by the former Lieutenant Governor. The legislators were using the press conference to announce the introduction of a number of bills addressing homelessness.

I’ve attended any number of press conferences called by social service, agencies, religious organizations, or advocacy groups and in my experience, often the press conference is held with no press in attendance. This time, because of the involvement of legislators, there were representatives from print and TV media. I had a chance to meet several of the legislators before the beginning of the event and shared with them some about the shelter. The conversations were cordial and the legislators were genuinely interested in learning more about the shelter and about homelessness in Madison. Karla Tennes, Executive Director of Porchlight, Inc. was in attendance and spoke at the press conference, and Shelter Manager Preston Patterson also was present.

When the cameras came on, and after the prepared remarks, the tone of the room and the event quickly shifted. There may have been a question about the content of the bills, but immediately, reporters began to highlight the partisan divisions, first by pointing out that no Democratic legislators were present, and then by changing the subject entirely to hot-button issues. The reporters got their soundbites and the press conference ended.

 

After all but one of the reporters had left, we continued our conversation. The Shelter manager described in detail shelter operations, policies and procedures, and both he and Porchlight Executive Director Karla Tennes talked about the involvement of volunteers in helping to provide 2 meals every day to shelter guests. Our conversation continued for more than twenty minutes. Legislators learned a great deal about what takes place only a few yards away from the State Capitol.

 

I am not one to bash the press—they are crucial to the survival of democracy and to the creation of a civil society, but I was struck by the immediate shift in tone and topic when they began to engage with the elected officials. The issue at hand, homelessness, didn’t really seem to interest them. Instead, the story they wanted to tell was the story of political conflict and political partisanship, and if they had to attend a press conference in a homeless shelter to get that story, so be it.

 

In my conversations with legislators and staff, we talked about issues like homelessness and opioid addiction that should matter to everyone and around which we need to come together across our divisions to find solutions. From what I could tell, there is genuine interest in such bipartisan efforts. That Governor Evers has announced he will chair the Interagency Council on Homelessness seems to be a move in the right direction.

 

I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we might create opportunities for conversations across the deep divisions in our state and society. Today made me both more hopeful about that possibility and more aware of the importance of such efforts in Madison and across the state.

 

Here’s how Madison.comis reporting the story.

“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.