Holding Up a Mirror:  Reflections on St. Anthony Park

By Helen Warren, chair, St. Anthony Park Bugle Board of Directors

“Why didn’t you ask us first?”

That’s the question neighbors posed when they learned about Luther Seminary’s recent plan to convert Stub Hall to an emergency shelter for people without a home.

         The opposition to the plan took shape quickly. Some neighbors mounted legal arguments, citing zoning ordinances and case law.

Others were practical: they asked what shelter residents would do and where would they go each day when the shelter closed in the morning. They suspected that underlying afflictions, like drug dependency or mental illness, would alter our social and commercial interactions in St. Anthony Park.

They worried about children walking to and from school and those in outdoor preschool. Some recalled problems associated with a previous shelter and worried the problems would recur.

         These arguments formed an initial answer to the query about why Luther leaders didn’t ask us first. Perhaps it was rooted in the urge to control and protect against opposition that resembled the “not in my backyard” mentality, a refusal borne of fear. Perhaps Luther leaders didn’t ask us first because they knew the answer would be “no.”.

         Conversely, perhaps they didn’t ask us first because Luther leaders just assumed the answer to be “yes.”. They knew that many St. Anthony Park residents champion progressive politics, are generous and friendly, commit themselves to inclusion and equity, and declare “all are welcome here” on signs in their front yards and church vestibules.

         It’s also possible that Luther leaders didn’t ask us first because they didn’t believe they had to. They own the property and are within their rights to contract with Ramsey County for its use.

         So Luther leaders didn’t ask us first, and then they changed their minds and canceled their plans. It felt like surrender, an admission of defeat.

         I wonder if the real losers were those who made no plans, who offered no arguments, and who weren’t consulted at any point in the controversy. The real losers may be unsheltered individuals.

         Perhaps it’s time to hear from them. So I searched for essays by homeless people. Google produced a predictably slim list of findings that included an article entitled “Homeless in the City” by Theodore Walther, published in The American Scholar in 2013.

         Walter lived on the streets of Santa Monica, California, for 10 years. One of the items in his duffel bag was a laptop computer. He spent most days in a library, writing, and many nights drinking himself into a stupor.

         Walter describes the rear of a post office parking lot that he called home. Not too far away, on the exterior wall of a drycleaning shop, was a mirror. Walther looked at his reflection in that mirror every morning.

         “I call it the Magic Mirror, though there’s nothing special about it,” Walther writes. “It simply reflects reality, dispelling all those creeping, insidious thoughts that somehow society’s judgment may be correct—that I really am just a piece of human waste, someone with nothing to offer, something less than human.”

         The mirror “shows me who I really am deep down, underneath the homeless façade that others see. It does all this for me just by offering my reflection, free of judgment. It keeps me going.”

         In his reflection, Walther sees himself “as a whole person, well or unwell.” That view preserves the possibility “that somehow, perhaps with the help of people I do not yet know, somehow my situation will change.

“Somehow I will make the right move or meet the right person who will help me overcome these long years and make it all worthwhile—all of the suffering, the sleepless, freezing nights, the hunger . . . the humiliation . . . they all have to be worth something. I believe this. The mirror keeps me going.”

         Of course, pieces of glass don’t work magic. The magic happens when we choose to look in the mirror every day and see what research studies and zoning ordinances and arguments conceal.

The magic happens when we pursue the possibility that our assumptions and fears and regrets are not inevitable, that something we can’t imagine right now will make what we have endured worthwhile.

        It happened to Theodore Walther.

        After a decade of homelessness, he made the right move and met the right people. He moved into a small apartment in Los Angeles and lived on his VA benefits. 

         Perhaps the “magic” can also happen in St. Anthony Park. The St. Anthony Park Faith Communities, a group headed by clergy at the neighborhood’s churches, invited residents to attend a conversation on June 27th at the St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church at 6 p.m.

While the topic was “how to cooperatively address the issue of sheltering those most in need,” the gathering promised to hold up a mirror so we can “see ourselves as whole persons, well or unwell.” (We expect to report on that meeting for the August issue of the Bugle.)

         I don’t intend to convince anyone of anything about having a shelter for unhoused people in St. Anthony Park. I haven’t made up my own mind about it.

         But I am convinced that our discourse ought to reveal possibilities we can’t see when we are annoyed, outraged or frightened. I am convinced that accusing our neighbors of deception or hypocrisy doesn’t protect or enhance what we treasure about St. Anthony Park.

I am convinced that what scares us about strangers we don’t look in the eye is exactly what scares them: violence, theft, assault and depravity threaten them, too. What “keeps us going” is the same, too.

Helen Warren lives in St. Anthony Park, is chair person of the Park Bugle board of directors.  

Leave a Reply