The John 3:16 Mission has been a fixture in downtown Tulsa for the past 56 years, providing food and shelter to the city's homeless and otherwise hopeless.
Recently emerged plans for the Mission's expansion, though, have sparked a struggle in the northward Brady Heights district over the relative needs of homeowners and the homeless.
Representatives of the Mission have applied for a special exception permit allowing them to expand into a vacated strip mall to the immediate west of their current facility on N. Cheyenne Ave., just south of Interstate 244.
Rev. Steve Whitaker, the mission's executive director, said it would enable them to go from their current operating capacity of 110 beds to 245, with 55 additional beds for emergency treatment.
"Right now, we have to turn people away every night," he told UTW.
"We have to turn women away. We don't have a shelter for women--we can only shelter men right now," Whitaker added.
He said the expansion from the current 18,000-square-foot digs at the old Salvation Army citadel to the new facilities would add another 28,000 square feet, enabling them to shelter and treat both women and men in separate facilities--a need that's been compounded with the closing of downtown's YMCA shelter.
But, some members of the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association are calling on the city's Board of Adjustment to turn down the request.
"Although I am supportive of the fine work by the folks at John 3:16, I think one more facility of this nature is more than our neighborhood can bear," said Brady Heights resident Margaret Aycock in a letter to Duane Cuthbertson at the Board of Adjustment.
Noting that the John 3:16 Mission "in its present form," the Tulsa County Jail, Avalon Treatment Center and the Salvation Army already occupy the neighborhood, she continued, "Since tent city was taken out, we have had an influx of transients living under our bridges, bathing in our fountains, pan handling and breaking into our homes--my newly remodeled home."
Aycock pointed out the progress Brady Heights has made since she moved in more than 16 years ago, when the neighborhood was "plagued with drug dealers and prostitutes who peddled their wares boldly on our street corners," and dilapidated, boarded-up buildings dotted the area as dens for the homeless.
"We have worked hard to get where we are today," she said, warning that the homeless and mentally ill she expects to be drawn to the area by an expanded-capacity John 3:16 Mission would threaten to undo that progress.
Whitaker wasn't happy when he learned of the opposition to his plans.
"I don't want to minimize their concerns, but it seems like anywhere you go, you run into NIMBY," he told UTW, recalling that the same "Not In My Back Yard" mentality cost the Mission its 60,000-square-foot facility at the old Tulsa Tribune building decades ago when they were forced out by the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority, and had to move into the much-smaller current building, which was condemned and unlivable at the time.
"This is about justice," he said.
"Gentrification is real, and expansion in north downtown is a good thing, and I'm just happy to see development happening, but we need to have gentrification with justice," the reverend said.
Also, he vehemently disputed objections like Aycock's, that an expanded Mission would burden the neighborhood.
"Their characterization that we bring them in and attract them is erroneous," said Whitaker.
"We think we'll be good for the neighborhood. We're not bringing in more homeless people; we're getting them off the street. We provide a solution to the ones that are already there," he added.
Whitaker argued that the mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless who are currently spending nights under nearby overpasses and days panhandling about the neighborhood aren't going to go away unless shelters and treatment centers like his are able to increase their capacity to help them, instead of turning them away.
"We have a sterling reputation for getting people out of homelessness and making them productive members of society, instead of just putting them in a shelter and giving them a check for the rest of their lives," he said.
But, Aycock rejects that argument.
"We agree with their mission, it's just when you serve the mentally ill and serve the homeless, it brings more in," she said.
Aycock said she, and, "I would have to assume, most of the neighborhood" don't want to see more of a concentration of homeless in the neighborhood, but would prefer to see shelters set up in other parts of the city, to spread out the homeless population.
"It doesn't need to be a cluster of them here," she said.
However, according to Nathan Pickard, president of the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association, residents are hardly unanimous in their objections to the Mission's expansion.
"I would say everyone on the south end of our neighborhood is fairly adamant against it," he said, explaining that residents' opposition to the plan is proportionate to their proximity to the Mission.
"They're the ones that have experienced drug dealers and such always being on the perimeter of the Mission," said Pickard.
The prez himself, though, was undecided about the issue at the time of the interview, but said he had a meeting scheduled with Whitaker to hear his case and to voice concerns from the neighborhood association.
As Pickard understands it, though, an expanded Mission would attract more homeless.
"From what I've heard, nationally, homeless people are looking for the cities with the best services," he said.
"That's why Seattle has such a big homeless problem--because they have such wonderful facilities for them there," he added.
However, Pickard said he's holding such arguments in abeyance until he hears Whitaker out, recognizing that the reverend likely has more expertise where the homeless are concerned.
Whitaker said he expects the Board of Adjustment to make a decision on his request by the middle of February, adding that public opinion on the issue will probably make all the difference.
Since he's asking for an exception to existing ordinances, Whitaker recognizes that the decision is entirely up to the discretion of Cuthbertson and the rest of the Board, which is likely to be swayed by residents in the area like Aycock and Pickard.
"The Mission has languished for 20 years, and we have to turn people away every night, but we've proposed expanded, state-of-the-art facilities to help turn people's lives around and get them off the streets. I've seen so many people's lives changed, and I hope the thought that there are homeless Tulsans on the streets will be something they consider," said Whitaker.
"We've already been pushed around once. Please don't push us around again. Please allow us to live out our faith," he implored.
Such considerations seem to already be on the minds of some residents, though, along with others.
"When it gets like this, it feels adversarial, and I don't want it to be like that. I agree with their mission and think they're honorable people, but we've got to protect our families and homes and the things we've invested our money in," said Aycock.
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