Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Support the Homeless in Downtown St. Joseph

Note: The content of this post was sent out in First Christian Church's newsletter last week. I've been remiss in posting it here.

The St. Joseph City Council will soon vote on releasing federal community block grant funds for the construction of a new homeless shelter in downtown St. Joseph. Community Mission, the partner ministry of Interserv, hopes to build the shelter next to its current shelter for homeless men, Juda House. The new shelter will also serve as a much-needed emergency cold weather shelter during winter months.

I spoke before the council on Monday, April 21 in support of the shelter along with other supporters of the proposal and even a former Juda House resident who has turned his life around thanks to the care and support he received. I was very proud and grateful that a number of First Christian folks were present to support the shelter. I am hopeful that the federal funds will be approved by the council.

I was disturbed and dismayed, however, by some of the comments made by a few of the council members. They repeated anonymous complaints about homeless people downtown and baseless concerns that another shelter would only attract more homeless people to St. Joseph. In their remarks, the council members in question referred to the homeless people in St. Joseph as if they were a problem to be done away with rather than as people to be cared for and supported.

As Christians, I believe we are not only commanded by God to care for people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder but we are also commanded to speak out on their behalf to people in positions of authority. Below, you will find the text of a letter I mailed to council members last week that explains my support for this shelter. I encourage you to speak out in favor of this shelter as well by either writing your council member or sending a letter to the News-Press. I believe that a polite and courteous letter by a concerned person of faith will send a strong message about what kind of community St. Joseph should be.

Grace and Peace, Rev. Chase Peeples

Dear ______________,

I am writing to urge you to vote on May 5th in favor of Community Mission’s two (2007 & 2008) grant requests for CDBG-Home funds for the construction of the St. Joseph’s Haven homeless shelter. Since coming to St. Joseph 15 months ago to serve as pastor of First Christian Church, I have been deeply impressed with and appreciative of the wonderful work carried out by Community Mission and its partner agency Interserv. They remain at the forefront of caring for the people in greatest need in our community. I believe that the plan to build the Haven shelter is excellent and that it addresses the needs of chronically homeless people which have gone underserved in the past.

Since I serve a congregation that has chosen to remain in downtown St. Joseph, I have had regular contact with individuals in need of shelter. Especially during this past winter, each week brought a new person or persons to our doorstep in need of a place to escape the frigid temperatures. Phone calls to the shelters in town routinely found them filled to capacity due to the overwhelming need. On a trip to deliver food to My Brother’s House, the emergency cold weather shelter, on one particularly freezing winter night, I found a group of men and even some teenage boys that was much larger than I had expected. The need is great and the agencies in St. Joseph that work to help homeless people strive valiantly to shelter everyone in need in spite of limited budgets and overworked staff, but the need exceeds the resources that are currently available. I shudder to think what the consequences will be if the Haven shelter does not become a reality. I predict that if the Haven shelter is not built, given these difficult economic times, St. Joseph will begin to find individuals frozen to death on its streets in winters to come. The planned Haven shelter is literally a matter of life and death.

In my short time here in St. Joseph, I have continually been impressed with the quality of individuals from area social service agencies and ministries, and as a member of the religious community, I am grateful for their difficult work caring for people who are often considered society’s castoffs but whom are deeply loved by God. At the same time, I have been disappointed with the lack of leadership provided by the city government and business community in addressing the systemic needs of people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The number of individuals suffering from mental illness, addiction, homelessness and chronic poverty are astounding for a community of this size, and the spotty history of addressing these needs in a broad-based and system-oriented manner is quite troubling. Approving the grants for the Haven shelter is a way for the city council to begin reversing a trend of long neglect by the St. Joseph city government and to demonstrate true leadership in addressing some of the greatest concerns of our community.

I would leave you with an anecdote that I hope will demonstrate the human dimensions of what is at stake in the vote for or against funding the Haven shelter. This past weekend I participated in an event that was organized and carried out by the men staying at the Juda House shelter for homeless men. I and other concerned members of downtown congregations joined approximately 25 homeless and formerly homeless men in picking up trash and litter around the downtown area. We filled two dumpsters full of garbage. The men from Juda House wanted to carry out this project in order to demonstrate to leaders in government and the business community that they are capable of giving back to the community when provided with support and shelter. Furthermore, I believe they wanted to demonstrate that they were people of worth—people just as worthy of respect and help as those who live in expensive subdivisions on the east side of town. They desired to be seen as human beings rather than as nuisances or problems. These men demonstrated to me and many others that they are worth investing in rather than discarding. I believe that if you can come to understand the men who will be served by the Haven shelter as human beings who are worthy of care and respect, then voting for the approval of funding for the shelter will be an obvious action to take.

Thank you for your consideration of my appeal and for your service to our community, especially the men, women and children who lack a place to call home.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Chase Peeples

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