Unity needed to address homelessness
Since 2005, when Churches Offering Temporary Shelter (COTS) opened a winter shelter for chronically homeless people — those not eligible for shelter accommodations elsewhere — at St. John the Evangelist Church in Green Bay, the Diocese of Green Bay has been advocating for this underserved population.
When the Green Bay City Council voted not to issue a zoning permit to COTS in August 2007, and then failed to follow through on a proposed shelter for those with addictions and mental illness, the Diocese of Green Bay again stepped in. This time the diocese assisted St. John the Evangelist Parish in opening the present emergency shelter, which began operation on Nov. 6, 2007.
Through all of those early challenges, the diocese was steadfast in its mission to not let any homeless man or woman, regardless of his or her incapacity, be left out on the streets overnight in Green Bay’s winter weather.
“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,” said Bishop David Zubik, just days before his 2007 installation as bishop of Pittsburgh.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who served as diocesan administrator before Bishop David Ricken was appointed to Green Bay, reiterated Bishop Zubik’s concerns. When he announced the diocese’s plans for an emergency shelter, Cardinal Dolan referred to the church’s First Amendment rights “to fulfill its essential ministry” to the poor.
Deacon Tim Reilly, general director of the Diocesan Curia and president of the homeless shelter, has called this ministry of caring for the poor and homeless “a moral imperative.”
“Because the temperatures are dropping in Brown County and because there is no safe haven for the chronically homeless at this time, the Catholic Church believes that it must act on behalf of the homeless,” he said in 2007.
Last month, city officials again raised concerns about St. John’s Homeless Shelter. This time the issue was shelter occupancy limits. The shelter’s conditional use permit limits the number of guests to 64. However, Deacon Reilly said Dec. 18 that an operational plan endorsed by the Green Bay Police Department and the Brown County Human Services Department allowed additional space for 20 more guests when needed. Last summer, the shelter spent $50,000 to expand the shelter space for this overflow of guests, he said.
On Dec. 27, city officials issued a citation to the shelter for violation of the conditional use permit. The violation could cost the shelter up to $500 a day. On Jan. 2, the Diocese of Green Bay was served with a summons to appear in municipal court on Jan. 18 to address the alleged violations.
In an ideal world, homelessness would not exist, but it is a reality. In fact, it continues to grow.
In a study issued by St. John Homeless Shelter last month, two other shelters in the city, Freedom House and House of Hope, had a combined waiting list of 91 homeless families, including 161 children.
Rather than take the diocese to court, the City of Green Bay should be working closely with all city shelters to provide adequate care for the homeless. Green Bay officials need look no further than St. Norbert College in De Pere for an example of how to be a community partner in addressing the issue of homelessness. St. Norbert College opened the doors to their Pennings Activity Center for guests who could not be helped at St. John Homeless Shelter. It’s only a temporary solution, until students return to classes later this month, but it’s one that seeks to address an injustice instead of creating another one.