Calvary Presbyterian Church

Addressing homelessness through focus, friendship and policy

2017 On the Table MKE Focus: Homelessness in MKE
2018 On the Table MKE Goal: “Diversifying our conversation; Affecting policy in the city.

Life in a downtown Milwaukee congregation like Calvary Presbyterian Church changes daily, but the door is always open to college students and tourists seeking prayer and to homeless Milwaukeeans in need of worship or a bite to eat. Then there are the church regulars.

One of them is Jonnie Guernsey, a longtime Calvary member and educator for deaf and hard of hearing students. When she’s not in the classroom, she does a little bit of everything at the Victorian Gothic-styled church on Wisconsin Avenue. “But I’m a congregant,” she said, laughing. “I make sure I don’t get a title even when I’m in charge.”

Good thinking. No title can accurately capture the vision and volunteerism that Guernsey poured into Calvary’s On the Table MKE dinner on Oct. 17, 2017. The approach was a potluck meal served on fine china in the church sanctuary, but the evening’s conversation focused firmly on the housing needs of Calvary’s homeless neighbors and their peers across Milwaukee.

Calvary’s organizing committee structured the conversation-for-24 to be deliberate and diverse. Elected officials sat with folks who had been recently homeless. Nonprofit leaders sat with Calvary members. Social workers were at each table. Attendees were encouraged to sit with someone they didn’t know.

“We didn’t want this event to just be Calvary members,” Guernsey said. “We wanted to hear the voices of the homeless, and to connect them with legislators who could do something about policy. For Calvary, we wanted to identify an action plan that we could implement.”

But first, everyone listened. Staff from Capuchin Community Services and St. Ben’s Parish discussed their approaches to helping vulnerable Milwaukeeans achieve housing stability and discussed contributing factors to homelessness. Joblessness was at the top of the list, and that’s where the evening's talk transitioned to action.

On the Table MKE attendees have met twice since that night to form an action plan that includes a long-term partnership with Capuchin Community Services at neighboring St. Ben’s. The Capuchins there are identifying five homeless adults whom Cavalry has pledged to support “as long as they need us” through friendship, job-training support with Milwaukee Careers Co-Op and housing placement. Cavalry members also supported anti-eviction legislation sponsored by attendee and State Rep. David Crowley.

“We brought all these minds in the room, and now every one of us understands a piece of the pie,” Guernsey said. “Now it’s about coming up with solutions that we can actually do.”