CEDAR RAPIDS — Stop for lunch some day at the Mission of Hope storefront in the 1500 block of busy First Avenue SE and ask yourself what you see.
You’re welcome to eat. It’s free.
You’ll find something of a hard-to-miss hubbub here as a diverse mix of some 150 poor and sometimes homeless men and women descend on the mission from noon to 1 p.m. for a meal, Monday through Saturday.
And Martin Dwyer, a Baptist Church minister and former banker who has been running the mission since November, can tell you what he observes.
“I see people in various hurting stages of life looking for a free meal,” Dwyer said. “In the past, perhaps there was more to see.”
The reference to the past is what he admitted was a practice of loitering and smoking out in front of the mission that led to suspicions of small-time drug dealing and to plenty of police calls, all of which can go to create a reputation.
Dwyer, whose commitment has been to bolster the finances and improve management, said that the mission in 2014 has taken “significant steps to be good neighbors.”
“It’s a wonderful thing we do,” he said. “But it needs to be managed in a way that gives us the witness we need to provide.”
Dwyer and the mission’s board of directors are learning all about reputation now as they push ahead on a plan to move the mission a few blocks to a closed church at 1700 B Ave. NE in the middle of the Mound View residential neighborhood.
But the Mound View Neighborhood Association is not greeting the plan warmly.
Carol Sindelar, the association president, said this week that there is no one with the association or in the neighborhood that she’s talked to who doesn’t believe in the Mission of Hope’s vision and purpose. Some in the neighborhood belong to churches that provide support to the mission, she added.
“It’s just that things have not worked out that well, and there are behavioral issues that the mission has had a history of,” Sindelar said. “I acknowledge that they have made changes starting this year. But they come with a reputation.”
The reputation, she said, can be a killer of home property values in a core city neighborhood where association member Clark Rieke said housing values already have been in decline.
“The Mission of Hope’s program generates traffic of 150 needy people who socialize and come and go, mostly by foot, during the week,” Rieke said. “This quantity and quality of traffic is more than any residential neighborhood should be asked to bear.”
He said the 1700 block of B Avenue NE is “one of the best pockets” of residential property in Mound View, while Sindelar called the block “a yummy little block” where most homes are owner-occupied and include young families with children.
Rieke said he suspected that many cities restrict church missions for the poor from residential neighborhoods, but Cedar Rapids does not. Churches can locate in any residential area in Cedar Rapids, and the plan of the mission, which is a church organization, is to locate in the former Central Park Presbyterian Church, 1700 B Ave. NE.
On Wednesday, Rieke spent the noon hour outside the Mission of Hope’s center — at 1537 First Ave. SE in a commercial strip across First Avenue E from the Hy-Vee Food Store — watching people enter and leave the mission’s noontime meal.
The mission’s Dwyer explained that the center seats about 85 at one time for meals so, as a result, there are people outside waiting to eat and people who have eaten visiting outside before they go on their way.
He said the church on B Avenue NE will allow all who come to lunch to eat at once — so people would not be lingering outside the church. It’s a setup similar to the Salvation Army’s on the city’s west side where neighbors do not complain, he said.
Rieke agreed with Dwyer that the mission and its current location play only a small part of the life on what is a long, busy 1500 block of First Avenue E.
Dwyer, who has worked with a jail ministry, pointed across the street and up the street last week at what he said appeared to be panhandlers and small-time drug dealers at work as the mission went about its job of serving a noontime meal to the poor.
“We’re not the problem with the neighborhood. But the neighborhood has some of its own problems,” he said.
Dwyer said the mission, its nearby shelter house at 211 Park Ct. SE and its proposed new location on B Avenue NE are all centered where the poor are. He said U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 37 percent of people who live close by in Mound View and Wellington Heights live below the poverty line.
“We want to be where the need is,” he said.
Police Lt. Cory McGarvey works out of the Police Department’s substation at 1501 First Ave. SE and he said he knows Dwyer, the mission and the block well.
“They have made some improvements over the last year, but we still have work to do,” McGarvey said of the storefront mission.
He said the department has answered numerous calls to the mission since January for a wide assortment of reasons, which include loitering, fighting, assaults, intoxication, underage drinking and more. The mission has requested the help in some instances, the lieutenant said, and he said the police routinely drop by or patrol the area.
McGarvey said the Salvation Army’s meals program on 10th Street NW and the Green Square Meals evening meals program in downtown result in very few if any police calls. He, too, thought it was important to have a site where everyone can eat at once.
He said the church location at B Avenue NE also would get the mission clientele away from the 1500 block of First Avenue E, which he said was a busy and inviting place for people to socialize.
He said Dwyer has brought a menu of standards and rules to the mission’s operation that are long on support and respect for all, minus any tolerance for fighting, foul language, loitering or worse.
“The Mission of Hope is an asset, and we’ll be an asset there, too,” Garner said of the Mound View neighborhood if the mission moves there.
Mound View’s Rieke this week suggested that the mission look to move to a different church property on Second Avenue SE in Wellington Heights, but Dwyer and Woods said they did not think any were available.
Rieke also said he might be able to support the mission’s move to 1700 B Ave. NE in an arrangement in which the neighborhood is like a foster parent and the mission an orphan who can be asked to leave if all doesn’t work out. At the same time, Rieke said he would want the mission to keep its population off the streets and in the church, and he would want the city to pay more attention to the neighborhood with increased home inspections and better community policing efforts.
Dwyer, a sizable welcoming presence with a face younger than his 52 years, has met with the Mound View Neighborhood Association’s Sindelar and Rieke, and he and mission board members are scheduled to speak at the association meeting this Thursday evening at the church that the mission has been looking to buy and move into.
“If we can reach a peace,” Dwyer said of the move. “I don’t know if any of us wants to live in discord.
“I’m a pastor. I don’t intend to live in constant offense to anybody.”
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