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.

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:

 

 

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.