Shirley Curtis, 72, shuffles down an alley behind the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, 2461 W. Center St., supported by a man about half her age, one of the many volunteers helping to sort donations on this sunny early-spring afternoon.
Curtis, who lives on $900 a month in social security income and receives less than $20 a month in food assistance, left with some sweaters, fruit and juice for her grandchildren. “It’s something I won’t have to spend money for,” she said, adding that she plans to tell others about her experience.
“I felt welcome — the people were nice and friendly,” says Curtis. “I would come back.”
“It comes from God, and we don’t need it — why would we make people pay?” asks Sister MacCanon Brown, the sanctuary’s namesake.
The sanctuary is a labor of love for Brown, who co-founded and spent 22 years with Repairers of the Breach, an organization that advocates for and provides resources to people experiencing homelessness. Despite leaving the organization in 2013 over a dispute regarding its vision, Brown was determined to continue the work to which she has dedicated much of her life.
In December 2016, Brown closed on the Center Street building. Though the structure still needs a lot of work, Brown’s vision is clear. She intends to create a comprehensive resource center for people without regular housing and those who are at risk; the building will also serve as an emergency shelter on particularly cold winter nights. In the meantime, the organization provides free clothing, bag lunches and other necessities from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.
The group also offers a 3 p.m. meal on Fridays at Hephatha Lutheran Church, 1720 W. Locust St., and distributes clothes, shoes, coats, blankets and hygiene products at the church Sundays between noon and 1 p.m.
On this particular day, we enter through a large garage-door entrance off the alley. Tables display corn, fruit, roasted chipotle red beans and “nourish bowls” made of cauliflower, chickpeas and curry sauce. A volunteer tends bins of bathroom essentials, including tooth brushes, soap, shampoo and tampons in the next room. Four or five others help unload and sort through the truckloads that arrive from places as far as Grafton, New Berlin, Oconomowoc, Cedarburg and South Milwaukee.
Though donations come from across the region, many regular volunteers live in the neighborhood; some have experienced homelessness themselves.
Eddie Kentle lives near 23rd and Chambers streets, where he’s been for 15 years. In addition to volunteering between eight and 10 hours a week with Brown, Kentle holds down a job at Little Caesar’s. He describes the area as a “food desert,” adding that there may be a corner store here or there but prices are often too high in an area where almost half the population lives in poverty.
“It’s a blessing just to give someone something they need,” says Geraldine Lucas, 63, who has volunteered at the Center Street and Hephatha locations for three years. “It makes your heart feel good to see that look on peoples’ faces.”
Lucas travels a little farther than Kentle, riding three different buses from her home near 60th and Appleton to come and help.
According to MBHS, more than 250 people have given their time, about a third of whom are in economic hardship themselves. And, Brown doesn’t send anyone away without a heartfelt thank-you, a bag lunch or something else they need.
“We create community with the people who are with us,” she says.
The sanctuary has an opportunity to be the “pioneering model” of a self-sufficient “homeless community center,” Brown notes. Plans for the five-story building include a rooftop garden, aquaponics-based agriculture, a dining room and commercial kitchen, where people will be served restaurant-style with food grown on-site. A makerspace with training for those interested in woodworking, electronics, printing, welding and will also be available, as well as employment resources and other assistance.
So far, Brown has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase the building and make necessary repairs; she receives partial compensation for the hours she gives, and currently employs three people on a part-time basis. According to Brown, more than 700 individuals have made one-time and sustaining donations, which has enabled the organization to remain grassroots and debt-free. She points out that their mission is not money-driven, “but the need is big.”
There is still much to do. The building needs a new roof, evidenced by pools of standing water on the upper floors, a cost Brown estimates at almost $100,000. And, to realize her vision of a fully-staffed and -resourced community center, the cost is in the millions. Still, Brown seems undeterred.
Brown tells me that solidarity is important, and indeed support will be necessary if her vision is to come to fruition. Shirley Curtis, who has already benefited from the community Brown is building, has another take:
“It does not take more than one voice to start something.”
If you would like to make a cash donation to the MBHS building or operations fund you can do so here. For clothing or food donations, please contact Sister MacCanon Brown at 414-305-8997 or firstname.lastname@example.org.⬩
Update (June 18, 2018): In response to questions, MBHS sent Milwaukee Stories this statement explaining why the nonprofit is named after Brown.
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