City says YES! to City Gospel Mission’s New Site

by Mark Grauhuis

City Gospel Mission (CGM), a fixture at Elm and Magnolia streets for 50 years, is going to relocate.

On Tuesday, June 21st, with a recommendation in favor of CGM coming from the Planning Commission the Friday prior, City Hall hosted a meeting to hear the pros and cons of the proposed new site in the Queensgate area in the West End, on the corner of York Street and Dalton Avenue.

As the presentations and moving testimony affirmed, CGM is a place where people learn to become good citizens and to give back to communities. Here the Livable Communities Committee heard from those whose lives have been changed through and through by this crucial and well-respected social service — and those who walked through the doors in a suffering state and have chosen to devote the rest of their working lives to helping others in similar situations.

In this struggle, as one witness suggested, CGM represents the best in all of us.

CGM, which opened in 1924 on Vine Street, provides 36,000 nights of shelter annually, runs addiction recovery programs for men (called Exodus) and women (called Having the Courage to Change), and offers tutoring and mentoring services. The non-profit, which does not accept government or United Way funding, is supported both financially and with volunteers from dozens of suburban churches, including Northminster Presbyterian in Springfield Township.

The Mission currently has 46 men’s beds in Over-the-Rhine. Its women’s program offers 46 beds at four locations in Mount Auburn.

CGM serves breakfast and dinner every day of the year in Over-the-Rhine. The new site will provide 76 emergency beds for men, and 30 beds for Exodus.

Opposition to the building project was represented by a few concerned small business owners and their lawyers. Most of the businesses in question are industrial supply and/or warehouses, with remarkably few tenants but fairly heavy traffic. Claiming that they “like the neighborhood the way it is now,” the opposition argued, through an attorney, that the traffic would put those attending CGM and the children of their employees at risk.

(Why those who lack affordable housing or have parents in the manufacturing industry lack the skills necessary to be cautious pedestrians was not explained.)

The building at 1805 Dalton is a former office building for a heating/air conditioning company that has been vacant for 10 years. The York Street parcel is the former home of a school for disabled children run by a social service agency and has been empty for six years. The developers have promised to preserve whatever they can of any materials of historic value on the site.

The opposition pointed out that zoning laws for the manufacturing district prevent “religious assembly” and religious education
and that these religious aspects justify barring CGM from relocating in their backyard.

While CGM, to the great credit of its present leadership, is no longer a “pray to stay” shelter, it certainly works to change people’s lives on a strong basis of faith. The new site will include Exodus Lord’s Gym and Lord’s Pantry as well as an impressive new shelter that can offer day services and programming. Currently, CGM has to turn people away once it reaches its currently low maximum capacity and during the day when it cannot offer consistent programming.

Despite the opposition’s claim to the contrary, finding a new location has been a slow and methodical process, having taken the better part of 8 years to make a sound selection. The Lord’s facilities, the new CGM office and transitional housing are well within existing zoning laws, although the city solicitor has been asked to slightly amend the notwithstanding ordinance to suit the lessons learned during this process.

As the meeting proceeded and some sat uncomfortably together in their seats, certain prejudices and tired misconceptions resurfaced, including the idea that Over-the-Rhine is the exclusive and permanent territory for a criminal class who refuse to live like the ‘rest of us’. (Simply false: City Gospel Mission and other shelters and housing organizations usually help people to find housing within 60 days, and resources such as housing vouchers and available work continue to end homelessness
for among the larger ‘homeless’ population outside of the Over-the-Rhine community.)

In addition, a resulting “rise in crime” was made to sound inevitable. One private resident of Westwood delivered a slightly bizarre testimony that included the suggestions that “the homeless” choose not to work and CGM’s plan is an example of “maiming the strong.” As speakers with experience in the issues reminded those in attendance, securing employment is not the only issue here. CGM’s holistic approach addresses bodies and minds that are often plagued with misfortunes; it helps people to exit homelessness and have sustainable living conditions. There is little doubt that these people will be better helped by being allowed to stay in the shelter during the day — when additional health care, addiction and job readiness services will be available.

“We want to get people to an employable state,” City Gospel Mission’s Roger Howell said. “What better economic development is there than that?”

While they continued to speak of some mythical generic entity called “the homeless,” conflated with criminal elements in society, it became rather plain that much needs to be done to address and mend the great disconnect and divisions that exists between Greater Cincinnati’s communities. Much understanding could be achieved by simply visiting and viewing the daily operations
and good works of CGM, and one hopes that the concerned small business owners will make some concerted attempt to know their new neighbors.

CGM assured the Committee that it remains dedicated to preventing loitering — as are most folks who work with those denied affordable housing — since it does not lead to the life-changing transformation that the Mission fosters. For this purpose, three locations inside the proposed site have been set aside for people to sit or stand and socialize, and the landscaping features include pedestrian walkways, increased accessibility (vans, and taxi and bus tokens will actually improve upon the existing location’s accessibility issues), and at least 70 parking spaces on-site. The move will require CGM to provide shuttle bus service for its clients and residents back to other services Downtown and in Over-the-Rhine.

The opposition repeated the fear that “women and children” and a “hardworking” “business alliance” cannot — should not — be around those without affordable housing.

A small group of business owners in the Queensgate area threatened that “jobs and the tax-base” will take flight and businesses will move. In response, CGM stated clearly that they would never put tenants’ lives in danger. Council firmly assured all those assembled that, should the businesses stay true to their barely veiled threat and relocate elsewhere within the city limits, they will do everything in their power to help with the moving arrangements.

Members of the Job Plus network, providing their own examples of how employers can successfully use local labor, challenged the small business owners’ notion that business would be hurt. Among those who spoke in support of the new site was Liza Smitherman, who sits on the board of CGM and is no stranger to running a small business as president of Brewster Pumping, LLC and as VP of Professional Development at Jostin Construction, Inc. Expert witnesses testified that relocating CGM will not negatively effect property values. The move is expressly not based on political whims or “moving the problem” elsewhere, but as a means to provide better services all around, as detailed in the carefully though-out vision developed by CGM for the site.

The opposition went further and suggested that the city is betraying the promise of a “safe and attractive” industrial park and making “mom and pop businesses” the victims of rushed, hazardous and unsafe planning as well as violating the vision of the Growth and Opportunities (GO) economic development plan.

However, the Committee assured the opposition that there is little to fear from those associated with CGM or the homeless population in general, provided that the people of Cincinnati actively participate in social services and recovery programs in order to meet the needs of those most in need. With most of the opposition having already walked out, Council concluded by expressing the will to find an amicable arrangement between both parties.

Council member Wayne Lippert, who was the only member to vote No, repeated the abstract mantra of “safety” — a strategy that lacked any specific details as to why those without affordable housing should pose any threat to the security of workers in a manufacturing district. Lippert also expressed, without intended irony, his preference for the site of an old jail.

By a bizarre turn in their logic, the few small business owners argued that, by “teaming up” with Cincinnati Center City Development (3CDC), CGM is allied with forces bent on destroying neighborhood and manufacturing districts across Cincinnati.

The fact is that it is regrettable that 3CDC will now own the crucial location of the former Mission just a stone’s throw from Washington Park. However, while this reporter is under no delusions regarding 3CDC’s explicit profit-driven motives, there is no doubt that CGM is moving because they have an empathetic desire to serve more people and to create greater amounts of successful and sustainable outcomes for the community. It seems unlikely that this particular relocation will kick-start the drain of social-service agencies and poor residents from Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, although the danger remains, making the Drop Inn Center’s current location and services all the more important to sustain.

CGM should be commended for having taken all the necessary measures to ensure that the site benefits the local business community as well as addressing existing problems with the current location of the Mission. They continue to provide an exemplary model for how other social services might work with the city in dealing with the direct causes of economic and social hardship.

Particularly impressive is their willingness to negotiate an amicable and open agreement with Museum Center/Union Terminal (this is important in light of the fact that opponents of CityLink have spread lies about “sexual predators” being welcomed into the West End — utter nonsense, since “sexual offenders” are not permitted to live in CGM shelters). Museum Center has said that security and transport remain issues, and received assurance from CGM that the new services are not simply being “dropped” into Queensgate without regard for how to improve the neighborhood.

Indeed, the Committee expressed an understanding that this is a magnificent opportunity to take a bold step forward and learn from past mistakes, as well as to support programming that will directly improve Cincinnati communities.

Wednesday, June 22nd with a 9-7 vote (Ghiz and Lippert voting no), Council passed the needed Notwithstanding Ordinance in favor of CGM.