MILWAUKEE — The St. Vincent de Paul Meal Program at 931 W. Madison St., received notice at the beginning of the month that its Meal Service Establishment Renewal Application could be denied.

The current license, effective July 1, 2014, expires June 30.

But the city’s Licenses Committee stated in a public hearing that lasted less than 10 minutes Tuesday, June 9, that it would recommend approval of the license renewal to the Common Council. The recommendation will be forwarded to the full Common Council for approval at its next regularly scheduled hearing, June 23. License renewal requires approval of both the Licenses Committee and the Common Council.

About 15 supporters attended the hearing, including Deborah Duskey, executive director of the Milwaukee Council of St. Vincent de Paul Society; E. Michael McCann, former district attorney in Milwaukee who serves the St. Vincent de Paul board as the Voice of the Poor liaison; Richard Buschmann, a board member; and Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force. No one in opposition to granting the license was present to testify on the matter.

In an email sent to board members June 5 regarding the public hearing, Duskey explained neighbors have been vocal over the past years concerning problems in the area – public urination and defecation, public drunkenness and loitering – that they felt were a result of the program’s meal guests. She said neighbors told the meal staff that a man had been going door-to-door asking them to sign a petition to not have the site’s license renewed. 

District 12 Alderman José G. Pérez asked the St. Vincent de Paul Society to state on record what improvements it made at the meal site as well as plans to address the issues surrounding the site and its participants. 

Buschmann, treasurer for St. Vincent de Paul and liaison for the meal programs, listed some of the steps they’ve taken to respond to the complaints: meeting with Pérez, police officers from District 2, Tussler, Ken Schmidt of Hope House, County Supervisor Peggy Romo-West, Felipe Chavez, meal program manager at St. Vincent de Paul, and a number of community members three times – in August, October and December; developing a plan that included a change in the policy to move it from a wet site, where people could come to them drunk, to a sober site; and created a ban policy meaning they would also ban people charged with public nuisances. Milwaukee Police provided them with a list of the names of people who had been ticketed. 

“We also added a Port-A-John so people have a place to defecate and urinate on the site…” Buschmann said, noting that they spent $3,700 since October for that, including a $105 per month fee, in addition to paying for damage costs and graffiti removal. “We provide a security officer from 3 to 7 to enforce that policy.”

Buschmann said they had planned to continue the meetings with community members on a quarterly basis, but stopped after December when they didn’t hear any other complaints.

McCann added that had they continued those meetings, they could have avoided the hearing.

“We think that it worked very well. We should have maintained the meetings,” he said, listing people they will invite, including those who attended before. 

“We will continue to do that every two months,” he said, adding that Chavez, director of the program, will contact the police weekly to see if there are problems of which the site needs to be aware. Pérez also suggested that St. Vincent de Paul participate in the Milwaukee Continuum of Care, which, according to its website, is a 100-plus member strong coalition open to any organization or individual interested in services and advocacy for people experiencing homelessness. It meets monthly to work on issues and opportunities. St. Vincent de Paul was a member, but isn’t currently.

“I think partnering with the Continuum of Care would help. …” the alderman said, thanking everyone who came to the hearing. “Some of the folks who complained to me had an opportunity to be here today, and they’re not, so I appreciate your patience and if we can connect with the Continuum of Care, not only invite them to the quarterly meetings, but participate in the Continuum of Care, would be greatly appreciated.”

With that, District 14 Alderman T. Anthony Zielinski, chair of the Licenses Committee, concluded the hearing. 

“Thank you for your testimony,” he said. “It sounds like a very positive plan of action, I appreciate that and good luck.”

Zielinski said they didn’t need to explain why the meal program is needed.

“I’ll tell you right now, we know, this community knows that the service is very valuable, this provides a very valuable service to the most needy in our community, so you don’t have to spend any time on that, we just need to focus on the plan of correction that Alderman Pérez has alluded to …” he said. 

Following the hearing, Duskey told the Catholic Herald she is “delighted” the licensing committee will recommend renewal of the license.

“I think that they just want to make sure we’re just continuing to make a good faith effort to be a good neighbor and agency, responsive to the needs of the neighbors, which we are going to do, so we’re very, very happy about it,” she said. 

Duskey said they hadn’t received many complaints, just in the past couple of years when a few neighbors were upset because, for example, homeless men would go into their yard, sleep next door, urinate and defecate. 

Two years ago, they met with the alderman, community members and asked the homeless men to respect the neighborhood. She also sent out the notices for the three meetings held last year, and mentioned the addition of the Port-A-John.

“We weren’t aware that there were continuing issues like this,” she said.

Duskey said they were concerned when they learned of the possibility the license renewal could be denied.

“That would have been tragic – we were concerned about that,” she said, noting that about 45 different faith groups – Lutheran to Methodist to Jewish – provide food and serve the meals six nights a week at the south side location.

St. Vincent de Paul also operates a meal program on the north side, 2628 N. Martin Luther King Drive, five nights a week, and, according to the website, each location serves between 300 and 400 hot, nutritious meals on nights of operation.

“It’s awesome, and we probably have over 1,300 volunteers so it’s really powerful, and it’s great because every evening the meal comes off,” Duskey said. “It’s just a microcosm of real life, so everybody really is very happy we can continue.”