God Bless This Porch

On October 14, 2008, seven men slept on a porch huddled under blankets in Iowa City in the cold and rain. Father Ken has lived in the parish house for 12 years, and the porch had doubled as a shelter for the homeless even before he started at the parish.

The porch, located between St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church on Jefferson street, is a seasonal safe haven for homeless men.

“This summer is the most we’ve seen. There were probably 10 to 12 people out there,” said Father Jeff, who has lived in the parish house for four years now.

The men who sleep on the porch fit no common mold. (Only men are allowed out of respect for Catholicism’s anti-fornication beliefs.) One man spends his summers in Iowa City but winters in Acapulco. One man was a painter by trade and from Tennessee, but he couldn’t find work in his area. He was still paying the bills on his house back home. He pitched a tent out back.

Some of the porch sleepers came to Iowa City to help flood recovery efforts and couldn’t afford housing. Then there was also the occasional troublemaker.

Father Jeff said that they really aren’t sure what to do with the porch but they recognize the need for it.

“It’s a matter of how much can we help and what’s the right way,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to say you can’t stay here and then preach the gospel in the morning.”

Some men who slept there moved out of the Shelter House because they are drinkers. The Shelter House in Iowa City does not provide a bed for intoxicated people.

“We try to accommodate people until there is conflict,” Father Jeff said.

If the police are called, then everybody has to leave the porch for a while. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s usually at 2 a.m. and nobody is sure who is at fault. One year they had some drunk try to beat up an air conditioner. There was nobody on the porch for a month.

The fathers don’t really police the porch, but occasionally someone will point out a particular person who is causing trouble and they address it. They do ask that no one smoke on the porch, but the burn holes tell the story.

The fathers put up a new sign that reads “No smoking. Please remove items from porch when you leave or they will be taken to the dumpster.”

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“We are afraid that someday the house will burn down.” Father Jeff said.

People come here because they assume it’s a safe place. Father Jeff said he is more likely to get asked for money down on the Ped Mall than at the porch. People just need a place to go. The open porch provides some protection from the elements, but this time of year guys will sometimes ask for a warm blanket. Father Jeff occasionally goes shopping for bargains on blankets.

St. Mary’s, who owns the parish house where the porch is located, is one of the largest contributors to the services for the homeless in Iowa City. Five percent of the church’s collection plate goes to the Peace and Justice Commission, which supports local, national and global concerns including the homeless overflow fund. St. Mary’s provides support for the Shelter House, the Salvation Army and Johnson County’s Crisis Center.

Father Jeff has had an opportunity to get to know some of the guys who have stayed at the porch.

“Usually, you’ll see them for a month or two and then they’ll disappear for a while,” he said. “Sometimes they come back.”

Sometimes the regulars get tired of dealing with the troublemakers that are passing through.

In the summer, people slept all over the place, in the driveway, on the grass by the driveway and in the stairwell by the church. Guys used to keep their blankets in the stairwell. The fathers pitched in and bought a container for the blankets. They placed the container out back, but that didn’t prevent things from getting stolen.

They closed the stairwell off because they had a problem of people defecating there. Some were pretty particular about what spot they slept in and would wake a guy up in the middle of the night because he was sleeping in his spot. Some come to the porch late at night reeking of alcohol. And some would stay up with beer, smoking cigarettes and talking loudly, making it harder for others to sleep.

One story is when a particular man, who had done some time in prison for minor offenses, claimed have been around since the porch began and to have a special rapport with the fathers. While he was trying to be helpful with cigarettes, he tried to force beer on people who were not in a drinking mood. He stole a bicycle, claiming it was his and was involved in an accident with it. He also broke into a drug dealer’s house one night and was expecting to be arrested.

One regular said the guy was a nuisance and really hadn’t been coming there that long. A couple other regulars left to find another place to sleep because they couldn’t deal with the chaotic atmosphere that had come since he arrived. He faded away without any real incident, but some of the regulars didn’t come back.

Most of the guys know the social services provided in Iowa City so the fathers don’t have to do too many referrals for their help.

“I don’t know all that goes on but it has a way of working out,” Father Jeff said.

From November to March, about seven churches participate in the Shelter House’s Overflow Project, giving people a place to go for a short period of time.