The world-famous Pacific Garden Mission has been struggling for 126 years to help Chicago's homeless with hot meals and give them a roof over their heads. For the last 4 years, it has also been battling the city.
The mission provides meals and shelter for up to 1,000 people a day at its historic brick building at 646 South State Street—known as the Old Lighthouse—with its famous neon-border cross reading Jesus Saves. Pacific Garden tapes its radio drama, Unshackled, there every Saturday.
The Chicago Board of Education has been attempting to buy the building since 1999. The city says it wants to make room for a planned expansion of the adjacent Jones College Prep High School. "We need more space to become a fully functioning high school," said Cynthia Barron, founding principal of Jones High and an officer for Chicago Public Schools.
Advocates for the poor think more is going on. John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said gentrification is a prime reason for the push. "The city is responding to the new people in the neighborhood who want the shelter moved and are using the school as an excuse," he said.
In the last decade, Donahue said, four large homeless shelters in Chicago—the Olive Branch, Sousa's Place, Cooper's Place, and the Christian Industrial League—have been pushed to move or make plans to move.
Pacific Garden Mission has been at this site since 1923, but it is open to moving, said David McCarrell, the mission's president.
"We have agreed to move to four different locations," he said. "Three times the city has given initial approval and then withdrawn that approval. The last place we looked at…was priced right out of the market."
He told Christianity Today that relocating would cost around $20 million, nearly three times the Board of Education's latest offer of $7 million.
After the mission rejected that offer, the City of Chicago filed a lawsuit to condemn the building. If it wins, the city could take possession by eminent domain. One hearing took place in June. The next is set for December.
Donahue said there are 15,000 homeless people in Chicago on any given night. The city's 125 shelters provide only 6,000 beds. He said that losing Pacific Garden, the city's oldest and largest homeless shelter, "would be a calamity for poor people."
• Bob Smietana in Chicago
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In 2000, CT profiled Pacific Garden Mission's radio ministry, the "Longest-Running Radio Show On Earth."
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