|New Life Evangelistic Center has been the crux of|
downtown's conversations about homelessness
for decades. If things are going to get better for our
most vulnerable citizens, that has to change.
This line from Luke’s Gospel is one we hear a lot this time of year … and not just because it’s Christmas. When the weather gets colder, we are so much more aware of those among us who go begging for that basic human need of shelter.
In the birth of Jesus, God became human not in one living in the lap of luxury but in one who was literally born into homelessness – laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.
And we shudder thinking how many people are turned away for lack of shelter today. And we long for a day when there is always room enough for everyone at the inn.
This image was on my heart as I attended the meeting of the Board of Public Service this afternoon where a ruling was made about New Life Evangelistic Center.
In the culmination of more than a yearlong process, the board ruled that New Life Evangelistic Center, which still has the same permit it received in 1976 to operate a 32-bed shelter but for years has operated at significantly above that capacity, has until May 12, 2015 to do one of three things:
*downsize its capacity to its permitted size of 32 beds.
*apply for a permit to increase its capacity.
*appeal to the state or federal level to have this decision overturned or altered.
This ruling is completely reasonable and actually gracious. Most important, the ruling is a clear challenge to all of us that it is time for us to do better by our most vulnerable citizens.
The ruling is reasonable because it is asking NLEC to obey existing laws and play by the same rules as Christ Church Cathedral and everyone else. They have a permit for 32 beds – either live into that capacity or apply for an increase through the proper processes.
The ruling is gracious in that it does not shut down NLEC immediately – which would be a disaster across the board -- but gives it nearly five months to choose one of these three options.
But all of that pales in comparison to what this ruling really is – an opportunity and challenge to all of us to do better.
In my nearly six years at Christ Church Cathedral I have learned that none of the players -- residents, NLEC, business owners, city officials, other service providers and people struggling with homelessness themselves -- have a corner on the market of virtue or vice. As a whole, the way we treat people struggling with homelessness is deeply broken -- and there is enough fault to go around for everyone to share in ... including Christ Church Cathedral.
The system is broken. The status quo is not worthy of defense.
We can do better. And now, with the clock ticking, we must.
For decades, we all have addressed homelessness downtown by splitting into predictable pro- vs. anti-NLEC factions ... and over and over again spent much of our energy fighting amongst ourselves. This helps nobody and has only kept us stuck in the same terrible place and convinced the region that downtown is not a place you want to be.
As a community, we have a deeply disingenuous relationship with NLEC. We point out rightly real public health & safety issues surrounding the property. We also point out rightly that there is not statistically relevant data that their programs help a significant number of people transition out of homelessness (the same can be rightly pointed out about the ministries of Christ Church Cathedral, by the way).
At the same time, it is also true that we have let NLEC do much of the heavy lifting so we wouldn't have to. Nobody has stepped up to provide superior services. Often the very people who criticize NLEC the most are the first to drop people off at their door and complain the loudest when people are sleeping outdoors.
We have – all of us – been happy to perpetuate a system dependent on emergency shelters, let NLEC bear the greatest burden of providing those shelter beds and at the same time lambaste them for the way they provide those services. It has been patently unfair to NLEC and not worthy of us as citizens and human beings.
The problem is not NLEC. Nor is the solution NLEC. A long as we focus on NLEC, we will be stuck in a toxic status quo, and the people who need help the most will continue to be trapped as well.
So what is the answer? We need to look back to that night in Luke’s Gospel. We need to look at a very pregnant Mary and what she was looking for and how we can provide it.
We need inns. And we need to build them together.
Inns are waystations. They presume that a traveler, like Mary, is on a journey and needs just a little help to get where they are going. They presume that the traveler will pay what they can but also that there is an ethic of hospitality that will allow grace to come in -- providing a manger when there is no room – when payment isn’t possible.
Inns are not destinations themselves but they exist to help people get to a destination that is a better place – and to give them a place of safety and dignity along the way.
In St. Louis we don’t have enough inns to help people along their way. Instead we have emergency shelters, day shelters and feeding programs that meet immediate needs but don’t help people get anywhere different and better – and in fact serve to trap them where they are. I should know – Christ Church Cathedral sponsors both a feeding program and, in our open Nave, a de facto day shelter. And over the past six years, I have seen the same faces over and over and over again.
We don’t need to spend our energy fighting over who can provide emergency shelter beds that while filling an important need also foster a crippling dependency. We need to come together to build a system where instead of shelters we have inns --- places where people not only get a bed but help -- in this case, professional assessment and connection to a housing-first model that will allow them to actually get somewhere different and better for themselves and for us all.
This is our challenge and our opportunity. The Board of Public Service has done us a public service. They have said the status quo is no longer acceptable. The rest is up to us (with them being a part of the us, too).
We must resist the temptation to spend our energy fighting the same old NLEC fight and instead work together to create a better system. And it will take all of us – residents, city and county government, business owners, homeless service providers and those struggling with homelessness themselves.
The good news is, we have good people and good models and good partnerships already developing. Last month, Bridge executive director Irene Agustin brought Iain De Jong to Christ Church Cathedral where he shared hard data about a housing-first model that breaks dependency on emergency shelters, takes advantages in recent shifts in HUD funding and has been proven to work in a variety of others cities.
The Bridge, St. Patrick Center (which has an excellent track record of moving people out of homelessness to housing) and the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis (which under Doug Woodruff's leadership has shown a new willingness to devote energy and resources to this issue) have already teamed up on a mobile assessment vehicle that has been gathering data for this project and helping connect people in need with resources already out there.
We have wonderful people downtown with sharp minds and big hearts who are ready to take this on. Contrary to the rhetoric, I have found most of the residents and business owners downtown to be compassionate people – but ultimately frustrated by our inability to uphold a standard of public health and safety and to actually help people in need. We have wonderful people like Teka Childress who have stepped forward time and again to meet needs through programs like Winter Outreach. And we also have Larry and Chris Rice, who I believe are trying as I am to follow Jesus devoutly and at their best out of a purity of heart -- there certainly is a role for them to play as well.
And, yes, we absolutely need the City of St. Louis to step up and be an active, productive part of a public-private partnership to create a new system. To make sure there is plenty of room at the inn for everyone … and that after a good night’s sleep people don’t end up back there again the next night, and the next, and the next.
This is a moment of great challenge an opportunity for us. The status quo is not worth one more ounce of our energy. As Pastor Kathleen Wilder says, our dream should be nothing less than a city that makes glad God’s heart – and I can’t believe anyone looks around us now and believes that is happening.
I am grateful the Board of Public Service ruled as it did. It has thrown down the gauntlet to us all – and I hope it realizes it is part of the challenge themselves! It has given us the opportunity to come together and commit to do better. To provide room at the inn so that Jesus doesn’t end up being born on the street – but neither does he end up living in a shelter day after day, week after week, month after month, with no hope for a better life.
The challenge is before us. The clock is ticking. Christ Church Cathedral is committed to being a part of something new and better … and I know we are not alone.
What role will you play?