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Growth vs. shelter: a parish drama in New York City
20 Feb 2001 13:23:41
Growth vs. shelter: a parish drama in New York City
by Nan Cobbey
(Episcopal Life) A media-hyped controversy erupting in New York's Theater
District is casting a well-known Anglo-Catholic parish in the role of a heartless
landlord forcing homeless teens into the street.
The drama is real. The truth is more complex.
At center stage is a narrow, brick, five-story walk-up next door to the
church: its "mission house." The church wants it so its members can expand their
ministry to the neighborhood. Its tenant, a secular agency rescuing abandoned and
runaway teens, which moved in 10 years ago, wants to stay put. The lease expires
The battle--joined by local newspapers, diocesan committee members,
government agencies and advocates on both sides--is over who promised what to
whom and whose rights are being trampled. Both sides feel betrayed.
St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church on West 46th Street, a towering Gothic
edifice built in 1895 just off Times Square, has faced a dwindling congregation
for decades and, more recently, a $200,000 annual deficit. Even though the $6
million endowment is strong, its earnings are being drawn down at the rate of 7
to 9 percent a year, according to the rector, the Rev. Stephen Gerth.
"We have three years, maybe, where we can still fund significant deficits
without damaging the integrity of the endowment," says Gerth, 47. "Time is not on
Called just two years ago with hopes he would "grow the church," the native
Virginian feels the only way to do that is with a new focus on mission that will
draw neighborhood people to the church. The mission house, with its space for
meeting rooms, educational programs, food service, will be key to that work.
"New York is a city full of people who have no community of faith," says
Gerth. "I would love for St. Mary's to be...a place where we could call to
conversion and faith people who have no community of faith."
Welcome for all
Most of St. Mary the Virgin's congregation comes from outside the
neighborhood, drawn from all over the city by the church's rich Anglo-Catholic
heritage. Known affectionately as "Smoky Mary's" for its incense-infused worship,
the church has always had a reputation for fine liturgy, good music and for
welcoming all types of people. The pressure is growing for it to welcome far more
In the mission house, where a non-profit agency known as SafeSpace is
running its center for runaway, "throwaway" and abandoned street kids, the
pressure is mounting, too. Offering hot meals--three a day, 4,000 a month--and an
around-the-clock drop-in center where kids can "crash," SafeSpace attracts up to
70 teens every day. Each month, more than 300 come through the door for food or
sleep or medical and mental health services. The staff provides an HIV clinic,
counseling, literacy classes and job-readiness training. A mobile home equipped
with a clinic and showers allows SafeSpace social workers to reach 3,000 more
kids across the city each year.
"We are out all night long where kids are prostituting and surviving on the
streets," says Carl Siciliano, director of the program's homeless services. "We
go out with food, with clothing, with blankets, with showers--things the kids
really need when they are on the streets." The youths--many of them gay,
transgendered, transvestite--are vulnerable prey on the streets.
SafeSpace has been lauded by churches, social service agencies, non-profits
and government offices across the city and beyond. It is officially designated "a
national model" for demonstrating how to reach homeless youths. No one wants to
see it close its doors.
As in so many disputes, poor communication is a major part of the problem.
The five-year lease SafeSpace signed in 1991 allowed for a one-time renewal of
five years: 10 years total.
Crisp. Clear. Legal.
But that was a different time and a different rector. A time when St. Mary's
couldn't afford to do its own ministry from its mission house and needed to raise
money to repair a disintegrating structure. The Rev. Edgar Wells, rector when the
lease was signed and when it was renewed in 1996, welcomed the ministries of
SafeSpace and encouraged his parishioners to be involved in its work. Many were,
though the number has declined over the years. Today, almost no one participates.
But what St. Mary's board of trustees and new priest see as a simple end to
a lease, clearly spelled out in advance, SafeSpace and its board see as a
betrayal. They say they have always understood the agreement would be renewed
again and again, that St. Mary's had a commitment to the programs of the center.
"It was like we were an outgrowth of their mission and the work we did was the
work of the gospel whether we had crosses on the wall or not," says Siciliano.
"When we entered the relationship... it was stated that the commitment was
for an ongoing relationship beyond the duration of the lease," he claims, quoting
the former president of the center's board, Frank Modica.
Siciliano believes SafeSpace was given the same message three years ago
when, at its own expense, it refurbished and upgraded the building's electrical
and plumbing systems. The work was necessary in order to open 24 hours a day and
offer kids refuge from dangerous situations they were facing on the streets.
"They signed a consent and approval for us," said Siciliano. "That was 1998.
Now they are claiming we were warned in '98 that we would not be able to stay
after the lease ran out."
Siciliano calls that "absurd....Why would we put a quarter of a million
dollars into a building if we knew we would have to leave?"
'Kids will die'
The outspoken director, who refers to himself as "an emotional Italian,"
states bluntly that if SafeSpace closes, "kids will die. This is a life-and-death
issue for some of the most vulnerable young people in New York."
That is not what the staff or congregation at St. Mary's wants. Their
distress at the impasse is just as passionate as Siciliano's, but they refuse to
accept the blame. They feel, firmly, that responsibility lies squarely with
"We are mystified why their board of trustees seems to have made no
provision for the future of their program," says Gerth. "They have a great
ministry, but they need to find a new home so we can use our home for our
Gerald McKelvey, former board president at St. Mary's, has even stronger
words. Irritated at a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by Siciliano, he told
the New York Times, "This effort to make Stephen [Gerth] the villain is a classic
case of doing a good deed and later being punished for it. ...They had a lease
that told them this day was coming. They should have made preparations."
The Times' Feb. 1 story focused national attention on the controversy and
bolstered the letter-writing campaign. Its headline, "Times Square Youth Refuge
Faces Eviction," particularly rankled folks at St. Mary's.
Hurt by such public criticism, Gerth counters, "It is one thing to say that
you have lost your home and you need a new one. It is another to say you are
being evicted and thrown out in the street, or you are being terminated, because
that's not true."
St. Mary's maintains that in 1998, after SafeSpace threatened the church
with a lawsuit to pressure it into agreeing to the electrical improvements, the
church sent a letter clearly stating the lease would not likely be renewed.
St. Mary's believes it has served the community well by renting the property
to SafeSpace at a cost so small--$3.98 per square foot, basically its own cost
for the utilities--that it should be considered one of the program's major
supporters. Yet instead of gratitude, the church, and particularly its new
priest, find themselves cast as the villains. They have said they are willing to
extend the lease briefly to help the center plan for its future elsewhere --
though they voted no extension at a meeting Feb. 15--but they are anxious to
begin their own programs.
""We need to be doing our own mission...and we have a bunch of ideas," says
Gerth, who bristles when reminded that the Times quoted him saying he wanted to
offer day care for children of office workers and executives. He wants more. "The
right mission will evolve for us if we open ourselves up to it," he says. "It
will come from the community and not just the community of St. Mary's, but our
Times Square neighborhood."
"The bottom line is that St. Mary's needs to survive, quite frankly. And I
think we need to be using our building for our mission." The congregation is
ready, he says. "They are very excited. In fact, one of the problems right now is
that we have the kind of energy that's ready to do something...and you can't
really bottle it and put it on a shelf. We are ready to get moving."
Whether it is an irresponsible lack of planning or a promise reneged on may
never be resolved. What is clear today is that the programs of SafeSpace are
endangered and there is no other such program for teens anywhere in the city to
pick up the slack.
St. Mary's has turned down SafeSpace's offer to pay market rent. It has also
refused its offer to buy the mission building. The programs must move.
Three months, even six months, will not be enough to locate another space,
orchestrate the necessary capital campaign, renovate and then go through the
time-consuming process of permitting and licensing required by the city of New
York, says Siciliano. That would take three years, minimum.
"All of our money is committed to the services we provide. We don't just
have money sitting around to buy buildings," he says of the $5.6 million annual
budget that comes from a variety of governmental and non-governmental financers.
"We are in the tightest real-estate market in the history of New York City
and we are going to have to locate something that is 8,000 to 10,000 square feet
with the appropriate zoning, the appropriate community use, in a neighborhood
where we are going to have the kind of political support where we won't be tied
up in court for 10 years."
As each side in this controversy calls the other "neglectful" of the kids
who will suffer most, observers and letter writers express hope that another
organization, perhaps an Episcopal church in Manhattan, will offer the necessary
money or real estate to bail out a worthy program and give this drama a happier
--Nan Cobbey is features editor of Episcopal Life.
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