Ann Arbor church's effort to help homeless fails; First Baptist removing shelter
Ann Arbor News file photo
The First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor’s experiment in providing a rudimentary shelter for the homeless is coming to an end. Sometime this week, a wooden pavilion the church built in 2008 at a cost of more than $15,000, will be removed and given to the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
The church, 517 E. Washington St., tried but did not have success in managing “problematic behavior” among the homeless men who slept in the pavilion, co-pastor Paul Simpson Duke said. The pavilion was built as an alternative for the homeless who had been sleeping on the church grounds, particularly under the large portico at the entrance to the building. Some church members felt unsafe when entering or leaving the church as a result. The church wanted to be compassionate and did not want to remove the homeless; some were ineligible to receive assistance from local shelters, Duke said. So the church settled on the idea of building the pavilion, which has a roof and floor, but no walls, and put it on the side of the church's property. But it became a place for people to gather and drink and take drugs, Duke said. There were fights among the people who stayed there. And the church had concerns about noise and lewdness affecting its next-door neighbors, he said. “Some of the (people who stayed at the pavilion) became territorial, so there was a bit more violent behavior,” said Duke. “We came to have some concern for the safety of the people who would use the place.” Rules were posted to limit use of the pavilion to the nighttime and restrict the number of people who could use it to no more than five. Although church officials tried to keep watch over the pavilion and defuse any problems quickly - going so far as to have a church member keep watch from the parking lot at times - the church couldn’t provide all-night supervision or hire security. In January, church members at a regular meeting voted to end the experiment, setting the church on a search for what to do with the pavilion. Church members didn’t want to throw out the materials. Eventually, they found a place for it at the Matthaei gardens, which will use it on its grounds as a place for people to sit, said Duke. On Friday around 9 p.m., four men gathered under the church’s portico, which provided greater shelter than the pavilion from the wind-driven rains of a thunderstorm. “It’s putting me out on the streets,” said one of the men, Jack, who would not give his last name and has slept under the pavilion since it was built. Although the smell of alcohol was strong in the air and one man crawled on his hands and knees in front of the door of the church, Jack said he thinks the reason for removing the pavilion is that the church and its neighbors didn’t want to “see the eyesore there,” pointing to the bags and suitcases of the homeless men that were piled up in the pavilion. Another man, who wouldn’t give his first or last name, said there had been problems at the pavilion, but he wouldn’t discuss them. “It’s their pavilion, so what can we do about it?” he said of the church. Duke said the church remains committed to caring for the homeless and poor. It is a leader in the creation of the new Interfaith Coalition for the Homeless, which will advocate for greater support for existing services and develop new initiatives. The church continues to host a meal for the homeless and poor on Tuesday evenings and is part of the rotating shelter network, which provides additional beds for the homeless during cold weather.