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.

A Sermon of three cities: Madison, Philippi, the New Jerusalem (6 Easter, 2019)

We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stories pronouncing Madison one of the best places to live in the country. Most of us love it here—the restaurants, the entertainment possibilities, the lakes, UW. That Madison is a popular place to live is evidenced by the ongoing construction boom. I was on the near east side, what is now called the Capitol East neighborhood this week. I hadn’t really noticed everything that’s happened there recently. There’s the Sylvee, a new hotel, more apartment complexes. The difference driving down E. Washington today from ten years ago is remarkable. Continue reading

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 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.

Faithful Development: Stewardship of property for mission during a real estate boom.

News broke this week that Governor Evers’ proposed capital budget includes funds for a new state historical museum. There is a proposal on the table to redevelop much of the block on which Grace Church is located with a new museum as the anchor tenant. We’ve been in occasional conversation with the developers for almost five years, most recently before the election last fall. At that time, we were told that the project’s future would be determined after the election and its fate might depend on the election’s outcome. That Governor Evers has included it in his capital budget is one more step in a long process. Currently, construction is anticipated to begin in the Fall of 2021 with completion in 2023.

It’s not at all clear whether or how Grace Church might participate in this major development. Early on, it was thought that part of our property might be needed in order to assure adequate parking for the project but as plans have changed, that seems less likely. At the same time, our west wing which currently houses our homeless shelter and food pantry, is underutilized and may be ripe for development.

When I first learned of the proposed redevelopment of our block, I was excited because I saw the possibility of our participation in such development to be a way of securing long-term financial viability for Grace Church and its ministries in the midst of our rapidly changing culture and the decline of mainline Christianity in the US.

During my tenure at Grace, I have become increasingly interested in issues of urban planning, development, sustainability, and how Christian theology and Christian churches intersect with those issues. I spent my sabbatical in 2016 reading widely from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to those few theologians who are thinking about such questions. I also visited cities from Richmond to Boston, as well as Seattle and Portland, to explore how congregations in urban settings were thinking about their property and using it to connect with their neighborhoods.

Recently, I have begun to see that questions of real estate development are not just about financial sustainability, more importantly they are questions that have at their heart theological and ethical dimensions. One reason for this is that this redevelopment is occurring in a city that is among the most segregated in the nation, in which racial inequities are among the highest in the nation. At the same time, our real estate boom is not creating affordable housing.

When I met with the mayor last April about the desperate need for a new men’s shelter, purpose-built and adequate to the needs of our community, he immediately turned the conversation to possible uses for a new development on our property. In a conversation with another elected official, I was asked what I thought the city of Madison’s core value was. My reply came immediately, “real estate development.”

I came across a book that will be published next week: Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.

the growing centrality of urban real estate to capital’s global growth strategy. Through this process, the price of land becomes a central economic determinate and a dominant political issue. The clunky term “gentrification” becomes a household word and displacement an everyday fact of life. Housing becomes a globally traded financial asset, creating the conditions for synchronized bubbles and crashes. Government, particularly at the municipal level, becomes increasingly obsessed with raising property values and redistributing wealth upward through land and rents. Real estate developer Donald Trump becomes first a celebrity and ultimately a president. Taken together, we witness the rise of the real estate state, a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.

You can read an excerpt of the book here:

From what little I’ve read, Stein seems to be describing the situation in Madison well.

As property owners, churches participate in this “real estate state.” Diana Butler Bass points out that in many cities, the cumulative property owned by churches and religious organizations is significant, making them among the largest nonprofit landowners. As Christianity declines and demographic shifts take place, churches in urban cores are often seen more as financial assets than as ministry opportunities. Across the country we have seen numerous sales, property developments and the like, often with significant financial windfalls for congregations and denominations. We saw this happen here in Madison with the redevelopment of the St. Francis House Episcopal Campus Ministry. A private student housing development on a portion of the land funds not only UW Madison’s campus ministry, but also supports diocesan campus ministry elsewhere. And yes, I was actively involved in that project.

When Willie James Jennings spoke in Madison recently, he emphasized the importance of place for Christian theology, especially given the ways that our theology has not seen itself as grounded in local and spacial contexts. At one point he said, “planning and zoning meetings are the most important meetings for determining the futures of our communities. Churches and Christians should be present and engaged at these meetings.”

Our churches, especially older churches constructed in traditional religious architectural styles, are increasingly witnesses to an alternative to the glass-clad buildings of contemporary cities. While they are symbols of the sacred and gathering places for the faithful, their very presence in the heart of cities bear witness to an alternative to the neo-liberal, capitalist, and consumerist culture in which we live. When we sell our property, or redevelop it in order to maximize profit, we succumb to the idolatry of the market and abandon our allegiance to the Christ who died as a victim of the imperial system of domination.

Our churches are not only pieces of property, they are outposts of the reign of God. They should model the community and world Jesus proclaimed and that God is bringing forth. In our stewardship of our property, our primary concerns should be to create community, to support and nurture the flourishing of the residents of our neighborhoods. My hope is that as redevelopment plans for our block move forward, Grace Church can be an advocate for a project that values justice, diversity, and a vibrant neighborhood where all residents can flourish, as well as profit.

“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.