Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Church denied permission to care for the homeless

An AP story on this topic caught my eye this morning. Apparently the Green Bay Parish St. John The Evangelist will have to shut its doors this winter, despite the fact that the city offers no alternative for the homeless offered shelter there.

The quote that really angered me was this one:

Alderman Guy Zima, who spoke at the council meeting against granting the permit, said the COTS program has invited people "to not live up to their responsibilities."

Couple that with the homeless man who died of a heart attack due to exposure to the cold. I guess the good alderman thinks this man should live up to his responsibilities. And just so people in that neighborhood can pretend that the homeless don't exist!

The Green Bay Compass has written on the situation, and you can find their article here.

Green Bay's soon-to-depart-for-Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubick devoted part of his bishop's column to the issue as well:

A scraped knee and beyond
Emergency shelter in downtown is all about caring for each other
By Bishop David Zubik

Last Saturday marked an inaugural event in Green Bay. It was the first-ever Charity Challenge Helping Hands 5K Run to benefit Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay. I was fortunate to be on hand that morning as about 175 people ran through downtown Green Bay and enjoyed breakfast in the Wycislo Center at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, all to support a great cause.
With numerous families turned out for the run, it was heart-warming to see moms, dads, sons and daughters readying themselves for the race, cheering each other on and then congratulating their own team members as they crossed the finish line. As can be expected, some tears were shed as children grew tired or took a tumble. Early in the morning, I saw a preschooler fall, going down on his hands and knees and almost hitting his head. His tears were almost as big as his cry of pain. Fortunately, his mom was at his side with a bandage ready to go for his scrapped knee but also with a comforting hug, kiss and word to let the little boy know that he was going to be OK.
I mention this story because it speaks to something fundamental about us, and that is to care for others. As humans, we naturally care for our family members, friends, and the occasional stranger in need. As Christians, the Gospel challenges us to go one step further and care for the least among us - the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless.
It seems that this part of our Christian calling isn't going so well in Green Bay. On Aug. 21, the Green Bay City Council voted unanimously to bar a winter shelter program offered at one of our parishes and supported by other faith communities, Catholic and otherwise. (See related article).
In its two-year history, the Churches Offering Temporary Shelter (COTS) program essentially was the last safe stop for people who couldn't be helped at Green Bay's other shelters. Typically, people using the COTS shelter at St. John the Evangelist Parish in downtown Green Bay were there because they are mentally ill, have a drug addiction or might even act out, thus disqualifying them from help at the other shelters.
The City Council decided to uphold the Plan Commission's decision, which denied an ordinance variance to COTS to run its program at the church. Without the ordinance variance, the shelter's doors will remain closed.
According to news reports, residents in the St. John neighborhood have complained about the high number of police calls during the shelter's operation as well as the intimidating behavior of people who hang out in the neighborhood park near the Church. While I can appreciate these complaints, I do believe that these and other problems can be resolved through a collaborative approach involving city leaders, COTS, and other public or private agencies. I do know that the Green Bay Police Department has supported COTS because the program gave people a safe, warm place to go, which was better than the alternative of sleeping in an abandoned building or breaking into locked cars or buildings.
Over the years, volunteers for COTS and St. John the Evangelist Parish have worked diligently to fulfill the city's parameters for a conditional use permit. The parameters have included submitting architectural plans, installing stainless steel sinks, and reconstructing bathrooms and entryways. Without the permit, COTS could not move forward with the installation of a wheel chair ramp, fire doors and strobe fire alarm system that are required to meet city codes.
As it stands, the city is without an emergency shelter for about 200 citizens for the winter. There have been suggestions that other municipalities could pitch in and share in the responsibilities or that churches could take in as many as three people on a given night, as allowed by city ordinance. But, as I see it, the problem is growing beyond a simple "bandage" solution. Yes, there are problems associated with this kind of shelter in one part of town, but ignoring the problem isn't an effective solution. Denying services won't make clients disappear. Expecting another community to do it doesn't get the job done. People with mental illnesses or drug problems have been and will continue to be with us, and we need to address this particular aspect of homelessness before it becomes a bigger problem. I believe and I know that we are capable of offering a much more thoughtful, loving, concerted response to our sisters and brothers who deserve more than to be left in the winter's cold.

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