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Downtown Reverend Speaks Up on Feeding the Homeless in Public Parks

September 5, 2007 Downtown, Guest, Homeless, Religion 23 Comments

A guest editorial by Rev. Karen Fields:

Over the past year or so, I have been a part of the St. Louis Downtown Residents Association’s meetings that have focused on the safety issues that face those who have chosen to make downtown their home. Recently, I attended a similar meeting convened by Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett. As a clergyperson whose church has opened the doors to the homeless, I went to these meetings already on the defensive. I had an idea of how the residents might feel about the population that walks through our doors everyday looking for a meal, a restroom, or a phone. I knew that they didn’t know me, my motivation, our program, or even very much about the people we serve. I didn’t say much at these meetings. I wanted to assess the prevailing sentiment.

I have to admit that I did hear some of what I went expecting to hear. I heard the voices that said that the presence of the homeless in the parks and on the streets was hurting their property values. I heard the voices that said that there needed to be more security measures in place to protect residents and their investments. But I have to also admit that these voices were dwarfed by the voices of those who were looking for safety and security for all downtown residents, not just the ones sleeping in a loft. There was evidence of compassion for those with whom they share their neighborhood. It is hard, however, to hold compassion and the desire for safety and security in tension; especially when you have compassion for those whom you feel threaten your safety and security. It was obvious that it is in that tension that most of the St. Louis downtown residents live.

None of the homeless service providers created homelessness nor did they bring homelessness to downtown St. Louis. This population was downtown long before the first developer decided to invest in gentrification. They made their homes in abandoned warehouses, in tunnels under the city, in the parks, and along the riverbank, long before the warehouses were reclaimed for profit or there were pets to walk in the parks. The service providers responded to a human need that existed. They are still responding to human need.

Working with this population, I have learned a great deal about the human condition. There is no one definition of the characteristics of a homeless person. Stereotypes are as wrong for them as they are for any other minority. I have learned that they are a microcosm of the larger society from which we all come. Just like in any neighborhood across the metro area, some of the members of the homeless population are extremely intelligent. Some are intellectually challenged. Some are creative and artsy. Some are linear and analytical. Some need to be on medications to maintain a balanced temperament. Some are diabetic. Some have high blood pressure. Some have families that love them. Some are estranged from their past. Some have criminal tendencies. Some try to be model citizens. Not one wants to be a failure. Not one dreamed of someday living on the streets. Not one of them wants to be invisible. All of them want to love and be loved. Not all of them know how.

As part of the neighborhood, Centenary Church decided two years ago that we have a responsibility to step into the tension and become part of the solution. No matter how well intended a suburban group might be, it is not a safe and healthy practice to feed people in our parks. There is no control over how the food is prepared, served, or disposed of. The homeless population risks illness and the parks suffer from trash and rodents. Centenary has a large dining hall with an inspected kitchen and lots of trash cans.

No matter how much downtown residents and business owners dislike the problem of public urination, the fact remains that there are few public restrooms available for a homeless person to take care of this most basic human need. Centenary is in the process of completing the construction of new public restrooms that will be available for anyone’s use. It is the hope that in the near future, we might be able to acquire the funds necessary to also offer showers.

No matter how hospitable the library is to the homeless population, most are not using it for the purpose for which a library is intended. Centenary will be open from breakfast to dinner most days, so that the homeless have a place of respite from the elements – to get in out of the rain or snow or to escape the heat, a place to get a cold drink of water or a hot cup of coffee, a place to rest feet or wait for an appointment.

I have heard rumor that some have said that we are nothing more than a City-sponsored Methodist jail. I have been asked how I feel about the City requiring people to join Centenary in serving evening meals or they will be ticketed. Neither one of these accusations could be further from the truth. Centenary Church has opened its doors to help ease the tension and help find ways that diversity can co-exist. Nobody is required to join us “or else.” Nobody is being forced to spend their day in our building.

The re-development of downtown St. Louis is exciting. Dry bones are beginning to come to life. Downtown living offers something that can be found no place else. Centenary Church has been a downtown church since 1839. It has chosen twice in its history to remain a downtown church; even as other churches have packed up and moved west. It did not go to the suburbs and decide to move back downtown. It has always been here. Centenary knows what a great place downtown St. Louis can be and is committed to being a place of hospitality and grace to all of the residents of the neighborhood.

At the last meeting I attended, the question was asked about what people could do “right now” to address the issues that homelessness causes for the community. I said it then, and I will say it again. Come join us at Centenary. Help us build bathrooms. Help us provide a safe place to eat. Come help us serve a meal. Come have a conversation with one of your neighbors. You might find that they are more human than you thought.

Reverend Fields is an Associate Pastor with Centenary United Methodist Church located at 1610 Olive and is the Program Director of Centenary CARES. For more information go to centenarystl.org. To volunteer time and/or money please contact Rev. Fields at 314.421.3136 ext. 106 or k.fields at centenarystl dot org.


New Signs for Gym Loom Over Sidewalk in St. Louis’ Loft District; Downtown Talk on Homeless

New businesses, such as gyms, are welcomed additions to loft districts such as the vibrant area in the 1300 block of Washington Ave in downtown St. Louis. We’ve seen some really great new signs of late at places such as Windows on Washington, The Dubliner, The Gelateria, Red and so on. St. Louis’ sign ordinance is about as modern as our 1947 zoning code so pretty much anything except uniform letters on the ends of boring awnings requires a variance. I’m quite pleased the city has worked with so many local businesses to allow the interesting variety of quality new signs.

But when it comes to the new signs at The Fitness Factory I am just scratching my head to think how anyone thought this was a good idea:


From the above angle you can’t even see the interesting sign for Flannery’s neighborhood pub to the west of the Fitness Factory.


To make matters worse, these are a matching pair!

From the opposite view, in front of Flannery’s, you can see the sign’s relationship to the buildings and sidewalk.


While the vinyl makes them look temporary (and cheap) the securing hardware makes them look more permanent. If I lived in the 2nd floor loft next door I’d be more than a tad upset about having my view up the street blocked to such an extent.

Ald. Kacie TriplettI’m going to see if Ald. Kacie Triplett (D-6th), shown at right, can take a look at these in person before her Downtown Talk on the homeless which starts at 7pm Monday August 13, 2007 at the beautiful St. Louis Central Library.

UPDATE 8/14/07 @ 7:30am:

The banners/signs for Fitness Factory are gone as one of the comments below indicates.  This was not due to my argument against them but the storm that passed through town in the hours before I posted this.

Last night’s talk was very good.  We didn’t really accomplish a whole lot other than have a pretty open and frank discussion about the needs of the homeless vs the quality of life for residents — but that is a huge step forward.  Hats off to Ald. Triplett for handling such a controversial topic so well.


Book Review; “Down Town, True Tales of Trial & Triumph on the Mean Streets” by Robert E. Lipscomb

I’ve never been homeless and hope that is the case throughout my life but one should never assume they will never be in that situation. Author Robert Lipscomb takes the reader through his journey from the good life (penthouse apartment overlooking Forest Park) to, at 51, living homeless living in various shelters downtown.
After talking with a priest at the suburban church where his father was a founding member, Lipscomb prepares to be homeless:

“I’m heading into society’s version of Hell, called poverty and invisibility. The living ghost existence. But I am encouraged. I feel stronger than I have felt in a very long time. As I have virtually nothing, how can this be? Choosing not to examine this too closely right now, I begin selecting which items can fit in my backpack, which will contain the sum total of my earthly possessions for the future to come.”

Lipscomb’s strength turns to fear and anger and back to strength through his “adventure” on the streets. Along the way we learn how the “normal” homeless make fun of the ones who are crazy, the best wearing brand of shoes, and where to get a meal. Lipscomb’s writing was very engrossing, making me want to continue through to the end without a break.

Down Town is preachy only to the extent of the importance of “God” to Lipscomb, a perfectly reasonable expectation given the circumstances. The book’s intent is not to make those of us with homes feel guilty so that we give to charities. Furthermore, the book does not make out the homeless to be a homogeneous society we should all pity. Instead, Lipscomb shares his experiences and mindset as he goes from being new on the streets to being more seasoned.

Lipscomb also talks about What’s Up Magazine, the street newspaper sold by homeless to raise money, and its program director Jay Swoboda. Swoboda, if the name sounds familiar to you, is the main person behind the EcoUrban modular green housing project. Lipscomb was an original writer & vendor for What’s Up when Swoboda started it.

There were many times in the book where I could not keep from getting watery eyes. This book is an emotional roller coaster ride — a ride all of us would just as soon never experience in person.

I don’t want to give away any more information but I do highly recommend this book. You can order the book directly from Lipscomb at Eagle’s View Press, I bought my copy at local independent Left Bank Books. Or if you must, Amazon.