There are exciting changes on the horizon for Capuchin Community Services (CCS), which operates St. Ben’s Community Meal Site downtown.
CCS, a ministry of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, will be collaborating with Chicago-based Heartland Alliance Housing in the renovation and repurposing of the former County Huber Facility at 1004 N. 10th Street, located on the same block as the community meal site, the Franciscan friary and St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church.
In a recent interview with the Catholic Herald, Br. Rob Roemer, executive director of CCS, identified the initiative as a means to both expand the ministry’s services and to “give a better sense of dignity” to guests at the CCS St. Ben’s community meal site.
The development is being called the St. Anthony Project in homage to the building’s former life as St. Anthony Hospital, built in the 1930s by the Capuchins as a teaching hospital for African-American medical professionals. It was converted to a Huber work-release facility in the 1980s but has been vacant for several years, said Br. Roemer.
When the renovations are complete, the building will offer housing, day reporting services and much more to members of the city’s most vulnerable population – the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. Capuchin Community Services will occupy the basement and first floor, and Heartland Housing (the owner of the building) will develop living units for 59 individuals on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors. Altogether, the project carries a price tag of $13.8 million, $2.5 million of which is coming from the CCS – a 20-year lease, plus moving expenses and furnishings.
The beginning of construction on the five-story building is slated for July, and is expected to take about a year. The CCS has already raised $1.15 million toward the campaign.
The St. Anthony Project will allow the CCS to offer new services like laundry facilities, as well as an indoor waiting area for their community meal program. The CCS is also financing a 3,000-square-foot build-out for the Columbia St. Mary’s St. Ben’s Clinic on the first floor.
The need for this new space has existed for some time, said Br. Roemer. The St. Ben’s location operates a variety of ministries out of the friary, assisting individuals with obtaining access to everything from identification documents to eyeglasses and bus tickets. GED registration, scholarship programs, hygiene and clothing items, prescription co-pays, shower facilities and haircuts are also offered.
“It’s just a really crowded and hard to do too much in such a small space. We want to take our services here (at the friary) and move them over and expand it,” said Br. Roemer. “Right now the friary has only one shower, we just turn people away at the end of the day.”
The CCS-occupied quarters of the renovated building will also include a chapel, conference room, administrative offices, multi-use classrooms and a computer lab. But the real crowning glory will be that waiting area, said Br. Roemer. With a capacity of more than 130 people, the gathering space will allow guests of the CCS community meal program to wait indoors, where they now are obliged to line up on the sidewalk.
“They can sit down and wait in a nice, warm place,” said Br. Roemer. “I think it gives the people a better sense of dignity.”
The St. Ben’s Community Meal is perhaps the best-recognized ministry of the Capuchins in Milwaukee. Over 102,000 meals were served last year Sunday through Friday, in the parish hall of St. Benedict the Moor. The meal hall has also opened as an emergency warming room on nine nights this past winter, keeping about 50 people each night out of 10-degree or lower temperatures.
Br. Roemer said he hopes the building will reinforce the environment of welcome and community that the meal strives to offer its guests.
“Right now, they’re rushed out of here so we can sit the next crew down,” he said. “They have to eat, get up and leave. This gets us a gathering space where they can sit and talk and be more engaged. We encourage our volunteers to sit down at some point in the night and share a meal. Don’t just come and be a server. We call it the Martha and Mary; it’s easy to be the Marthas who want to be busy. Be the Marys who just want to sit down and be present.”
“It’s St. Ben’s Community Meal. It’s not just St. Ben’s starving-and-need-a-meal,” said Dan McKinley, a longtime CCS volunteer. “Some people come because they want a sense of community. There are a lot of regulars here; there’s a lot of good give-and-take, a lot of love that you see in the building. It’s a great feeling to, as Br. Rob says, just ‘be with’ somebody for a few hours. There are incredible stories of people who are not just surviving but living really interesting lives.”
About 70 percent of the guests at the community meal are homeless, estimated Br. Roemer. The remainder have a place to live but are without the means to afford both rent and food. Of those individuals, he said, about 15-20 percent are mentally challenged and unable to find employment.
The project’s potential to impact the lives of the vulnerable mentally ill population was an incentive for the support of the Erica P. John Fund, which provided a $100,000 matching grant to the CCS’ capital campaign.
Paula John of the Erica P. John Fund praised the project’s provisions for supportive housing, naming it as a crucial service for those who are at risk of homelessness due to mental illness.
Her family’s support of the Capuchins dates back to the 1950s, she said in an emailed statement to the Milwaukee Catholic Herald. Her parents, philanthropists Erica and Harry John, were heirs to the Miller brewing fortune and longtime supporters of Catholic charities in the Milwaukee area, most notably the archdiocese itself.
“Our family has been personally touched by serious mental illness, to which we lost a sister and daughter in 1999,” she said. “The Capuchins have provided compassionate support for homeless and mentally ill persons for many years in Milwaukee by feeding, clothing, providing medical care, social services and friendship to them. And, of course, the Caps already successfully provide in-house services in an apartment building for those in need of supportive services.”
The Capuchin Apartments on West Tamarack Street is another supportive housing collaboration with Heartland, built in 2011.
“We wanted to be on-board to assist this new project of theirs because we are confident that the Capuchins will ensure their residents with mental illness receive the support necessary to keep them in their apartments so they don’t end up back on the streets or in jail – which unfortunately our local governments use as warehouses for those sick with mental illness,” said John.
McKinley echoed John’s hopes for the supportive housing units.
“I was just at a conference on homeless issues in Madison for legislators and policy-makers, and good research was presented on five different strategies to help the homeless – rapid re-housing, emergency shelters, and other ways that are helpful in the short-term – but permanent supportive housing is the most successful, mainly because the supportive part is the key thing,” he said. “That’s what really works long-term. That’s why the Capuchins’ role in this is so important, because without that support, it wouldn’t work.”
With the St. Anthony Project, “we’re going to focus more on people who are in and out of the jail system – they go from jail to homeless and back to jail,” said Br. Roemer. “Heartland provides support services at all their places – there is a case manager and property manager on-site.”
Rent is one-third of the resident’s income, and there is no limit on the length of residency, he said.
“If you just give somebody a housing voucher and they go out and find an apartment, a few months later, a year later, they’re in difficult straits again,” said McKinley. “But, with St. Anthony, we have a good, long-term, proven solution.”
Those interested in donating to the CCS capital campaign are asked to make checks payable to Capuchin Community Services; designate “capital campaign” in the memo line and send to: PO Box 5830, Milwaukee, WI 53205.