Last October, Madison City Council members approved an ordinance change allowing religious institutions and nonprofit organizations to host people in tents or other temporary portable shelters on their premises.
One impetus was the “tiny house” movement, the effort by Occupy Madison Inc. to build a series of small structures on wheels for homeless people. The houses can be parked on city streets, but only if they are moved every 48 hours. Through the ordinance change, churches and other worship communities could provide longer-term sites.
Ten months later, no church is yet hosting a tiny house or homeless encampment, but it’s not for lack of interest or trying, said Brenda Konkel of Occupy Madison Inc.
“The churches that seem most willing to do it are the Downtown churches that don’t have a lot of space,” she said. “It’s the logistical issues that make it most difficult.”
In fairness to the churches, the urgency to find sites has diminished somewhat since last fall. In May, the City Council approved Occupy Madison’s plan to create a village of up to nine tiny houses on a site on East Johnson Street on the city’s East Side. Also, there is not yet a critical mass of tiny houses. Only four have been constructed.
“It’s been a little bit of a lower priority to find church sites,” Konkel said. “Not that we gave up or won’t be back, but until we get to that 10th house, we’re focused mainly on creating a community of tiny houses (at the East Johnson Street site).”
Several churches have spent considerable time and effort on possibly becoming hosts for tiny houses. Trinity Lutheran Church, 1904 Winnebago St., appears to have come the closest.
During Lent this year, the congregation held a series of educational forums on homelessness, with representatives from Occupy Madison among the guest speakers. At the end of Lent, the congregation discussed actions it could take to concretely aid the homeless, and hosting tiny houses was among them.
“We talked extensively about it, and there was definitely support from the whole congregation for having them here,” said the Rev. Sue Schneider. “We were all on board.”
Then a hitch developed. The parking lot adjacent to the church is small and used constantly for church functions and by the many community groups that meet at the church, so it wouldn’t work, Schneider said. The church instead wanted to place the tiny houses on the much larger, auxiliary parking lot it owns across the street.
But the current ordinance does not allow for that scenario. To host a tiny house, a parking lot must be on the church’s immediate premises, not off site, said Matt Tucker, city zoning administrator.
Lake Edge Lutheran Church, 4032 Monona Drive, also pursued the issue seriously.
In June, a church committee met with a number of people from Occupy Madison, including Konkel. Ultimately, the committee felt there were too many issues still to be worked out to move forward right now, said the Rev. Stephen Marsh.
The committee had concerns about the design of the tiny houses, such as whether the heating, ventilation and electrical systems are safe for the occupants, Marsh said. Also, the congregation would need to come to a consensus on several significant details, including whether to allow access to the church building and whether the occupants would be allowed to have alcohol on church property, something currently not allowed.
“We are not giving up, but we’re finding a few more obstacles than we anticipated,” Marsh said.
Lakeview Lutheran Church, 4001 Mandrake Road, which has a long history of helping the homeless, also has put the concept on hold.
“I like the entire idea, and I know there would be interest in this congregation, but I also know there would be some resistance in the neighborhood,” said the Rev. Dean Kirst.
The church saw that resistance in November 2012, when it opened a warming room with coffee for homeless people camping nearby at Lake View Hill Park. “We watched people stop and yell at that encampment, so we know there is opposition,” Kirst said.
The church hosts homeless families on site several weeks each year, providing meals and a safe place to sleep. It does this through an organization called The Road Home Dane County, which handles all of the management issues, from screening families to enforcing rules and responding to emergencies, Kirst said.
Hosting tiny houses would bring with it a greater level of responsibility, one the church has not had time to seriously consider, he said.