Does a Bowery building portend a "new focus" for the Catholic Church? NYT thinks so

Readers of the print edition of Sunday's New York Times were met with the headline, "On Bowery, Church’s New Focus Leaves a Void for the Needy." Online readers got a similar message: "On the Bowery, Questions About the Catholic Church’s Shifting Mission."

So, how is the Church changing its mission, according to the Times? Is it altering its outreach to the poor?

Well ... maybe.

The Archdiocese of New York has closed down a single social-services center for homeless men, replacing it with an arts center. This, according to Times "Side Street" photo-essayist David Gonzalez, appears to be a sign that the archdiocese is forgoing its mission to the poor in favor of the yuppification of the Lower East Side -- or something. While he does not editorialize in the manner of the Times' headline writers, the message comes through via the people he chooses to narrate the story:

Men lined up outside St. Joseph House on the Lower East Side on a recent morning, some with their belongings stuffed in worn bags, all with their stomachs empty. Inside the dining hall, which is run by Catholic Worker, a hearty meal of stew and bread awaited. Most of the men were homeless, though not necessarily hopeless — this daily ritual gave sustenance and respite in a neighborhood that has steadily pushed them aside as tenements and poor people give way to luxury buildings.
Gerald Howard ushered a few men at a time inside. Once homeless himself, he has lived at St. Joseph House for several years, and helps the ministry in welcoming the needy.
“The hipsters, yuppies or whatever name you call them have been infiltrating this neighborhood,” he said. “They’re gentrifying the area, and I don’t think the homeless are part of their equation. I think, for them, out of sight is out of mind. You don’t see them. You don’t talk to them.”

Thus, the story so far:

  • A house run by Catholic Worker (which operates independent of the New York Archdiocese) is helping the homeless on the Lower East Side.
  • A formerly homeless man who helps the ministry believes that the "hipsters" and "yuppies" who are "infiltrating the neighborhood" and are "gentrifying the neighborhood" want nothing to do with the homeless.

I think it is safe to say that, for most Times readers (even those in the fly-over hinterlands), none of the above is news. But now comes the meat of the story:

The Bowery was once synonymous with being down and out, but, Mr. Howard said, services for homeless men have become harder to find there. He used to work at the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men, a stalwart presence on Bleecker Street since the 1940s, where each day about 100 men took morning showers, grabbed a meal and got their mail.
The Archdiocese of New York closed the center in 2011, citing “changing demographics” and low demand. It renovated the building and turned it into a Roman Catholic cultural center containing a 250-seat auditorium, a black box theater, rehearsal rooms and a small gallery. The building will also house eight campus ministry volunteers.

Here we have it: A longtime diocesan-funded center for the homeless on the Lower East Side has been repurposed as a hipster haven. Instead of being part of the solution for poor men on the Bowery, the Catholic Church is now part of the problem -- or so it would seem, based on the testimony of Fred Armour, a homeless man who, since the closure of Holy Name, has been reduced to washing himself in the sprinklers at a local park: 

Not that long ago, Mr. Armour was struck by the sight of well-dressed people milling about outside the Sheen center.
“It looked like one of those events you’d see at any art center,” he said. “We already have a lot of culture around here. Why is the church joining in with what everybody else is doing around here? Joining the crowd.”

The second half of the story focuses upon the efforts of St. Joseph House volunteer Heidi Hynes to convince the Archdiocese to let the homeless take morning showers at the Sheen Center, and the polite rebuffs she has received. She is the only person in the story who is presented as a good Catholic, listening to the Pope and praying a novena:

Encouraged by Pope Francis’s pronouncements about the obligation of the faithful to help the poor and marginalized, she wrote to Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, hoping that an accommodation could be reached. The cardinal replied in a letter that “the time has come to make a different use” of the building, but he vowed that the church would continue to provide services to the homeless in Lower Manhattan.
“I told Heidi if there is a need, we will look at it,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, who runs Catholic Charities. “I do know we looked around when we were phasing out the center and thought the Bowery Residents’ Committee and the Rescue Mission provide a lot of services right around the corner.”
Undaunted, Ms. Hynes continues to press for a more favorable decision, gathering signatures on a petition and praying a novena to Dorothy Day, who helped found the Catholic Worker movement and spent years living and working with the poor on the Lower East Side. 

Finally, as Gonzalez approaches the story's last paragraph, he gives us something approximating a judgment of a "new focus" or "shifting priority" for the Church:

What is happening on the Bowery is not surprising, Ms. Hynes said, in a city where the well-off need not interact with the needy.
“People who are poor help people who are poor more than rich people do,” she said...

And that's about the size of it. "What is happening on the Bowery," according to the Times, is that "hipsters," "yuppies," and "rich people" are taking over -- and the Catholic Church is hopping on the bandwagon, in defiance of Pope Francis's desire to have a church that is poor and for the poor.

I don't want to be unduly harsh on Gonzalez, an award-winning reporter who, as GR's Mollie Hemingway has noted, has done outstanding religion journalism in the past. But I think his story has a problem akin to that which GR's D. Pulliam described when commenting on another article of his:

When journalists write stories about people doing good things with seemingly pure hearts, it's not unusual that the reporting ends up being a bit on the soft side. There is nothing particularly flagrant about this offense. I confess to being guilty of it on occasion. However, failing to be skeptical, provide the needed context and ask tough questions leads to stories that leave readers with questions. 

The questions I have about Gonzalez's Bowery piece are: 

If the demographics of New York City really are changing, as Dolan says, then is the Archdiocese opening up new social-service centers in areas where the numbers of poor are increasing?
Dolan's response to Hynes would seem to indicate that this is the case. Gonzalez doesn't tell us whether he asked the Cardinal for evidence of the Church's response to the demographic shifts. In fact, he doesn't indicate that he even tried to reach Dolan; he only quotes the cardinal's letter to Hynes.

Is there any evidence to show that the Catholic Church is reducing its homeless outreach overall? 
The Church's outreach is run by Catholic Charities, which, although part of the Archdiocese, has a separate budget. The last three years of Catholic Charities budgets posted online -- 2010, 2011, and 2012 -- show that the organization's budget for homeless programs remained fairly stable during those years. In 2012, for example, Catholic Charities oversaw $72 million in services for "feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless," serving 140,000 people.

Is the transformation of Holy Name Center the only instance during the past few years in which a diocesan building has been repurposed for a different Church-sponsored use? 
In the past, the Archdiocese has enabled nonprofits such as the Sisters of Life to take over disused convents to give housing to pregnant women in need or who are threatened by domestic violence. Does that sort of repurposing of buildings for charitable use still go on? Or does the Archdiocese now repurpose buildings only to gentify them?

Finally, as a member of the Catholic faithful, I have to ask:

Couldn't Gonzalez find one member of the Sheen Center staff, or one of those "well-dressed" patrons of the center, to give their side of the story?
To paint Hynes as the only Catholic in the story who follows the Pope and prays novenas seems to me a bit disingenuous. Doesn't anyone who is part of the Sheen Center, or patronizes it, have a faith life? Do they see the center as fulfilling any part of Francis's vision for the Church? It's not hard to find quotes from Francis about the need to evangelize through the arts -- Evangelii Gaudium 167, for example.

I'm afraid that, in failing to address any of the above questions, Gonzalez's piece, for all its good intentions, approaches the "gotcha" attitude that former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels observed in CNN's "expose" on archbishops' pricey homes. Your thoughts?

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