Homeless Camp

Tents for homeless people dot the courtyard last fall at Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse, which must end its Tent Ministry for lack of insurance coverage.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse will pull up the stakes of its Tent Ministry on Tuesday, the victim of its insurance company’s refusing coverage, a closure that prompted the pastor to decry homelessness and call for greater community efforts to solve it.

Pastor Wesley White, noting the irony of having to shut down on the birthday of one of the denomination’s founders, John Wesley, in 1703, cited the importance of such ministries to Wesley.

“The best birthday party for John Wesley today would be the raising of a ruckus over the slowness of all parts of our community to acknowledge and do what each can do to stop hiding and burying the problem of increasing numbers of people not having shelter,” White said in a statement about the closing.

The Tent Ministry began last summer, when a church guest without shelter asked to pitch a tent at dusk and remove it promptly in the morning. As more unsheltered people began to do so, and some surrounding business complained, La Crosse officials notified the congregation that the encampment violated city ordinances and ordered its closure.

The tenting area closed in November when the La Crosse Warming Center opened for its season.

During the winter, city and church officials reached an accord allowing the camping to continue this summer, but the church’s insurance carrier, Church Mutual, excluded the Tent Ministry from its policy, resulting in the decision to end the ministry for liability reasons, the pastor said.

Wesley United Methodist’s Sacred Grounds Coffee Sanctuary from 8 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Mondays will continue. Sacred Grounds was created as a bridge shelter to cover the time between the Warming Center closed and guests at The Salvation Army must leave for the day and the opening of the Franciscan Hospitality House to provide shelter and snacks in the afternoon.

An increase in the number of campers made it difficult for the congregation to continue working to meet city health codes, White said.

“As people continued to be sent away from other locations, their passing through our neighborhood caused problems, and we became an easy target to blame,” White said. “This meant that our relations with neighbors deteriorated past our ability to be a good neighbor.”

Wesley United “has known all along that our Sacred Grounds Tent Sanctuary was not a solution for a community response regarding those who are currently unsheltered. This will take a wider combination of city/county political will, business/landlord investment, social agency cooperation, religious/nonprofit energy, and a citizenry that understands we are all in community, regardless of circumstance,” White said.

The congregation will convene what it describes as a “time of celebrating this ministry to the unsheltered and a time of grieving that those without a regular roof over their heads will again have to move to another part of the city” at 5:30 p.m. today at the church at 721 King St.

“Our hope is that our public mourning of the loss of this ministry will continue to highlight the need for a continuation of a much-needed conversation and coordination of resources for those without a regular roof over their head," White said.

The shutdown of the encampment and White’s plea come even as an initiative to end homelessness is being organized after consultant Erin Healy of Brooklyn, N.Y., recently met with a broad representation of the city and the county, nonprofit groups, businesses, Realtors, landlords and other stakeholders to set firm goals and deadlines.

Gundersen Health System’s new Population Health and Strategy Department and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are the driving forces behind that endeavor.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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