SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: Peace House … ‘A Place to Belong’

Getting acquainted

A lone building stands across the alley from the Dairy Queen in the wasted land at the corner of Portland and Franklin in the Phillips neighborhood. Peace House, as this solitary oasis is called, has been around since October of 1985—long before the corner was empty. From its name I always imagined it was a kind of McGruff House for adults, a safe place to go in a dangerous part of town. A few weeks ago I found out that’s exactly what it is.

Some of the most defenseless and vulnerable adults in the city find refuge at Peace House. Most of the people who are part of the Peace House community live at subsistence level, with incomes far below the $37,000-per-year-for-a-family-of-four that is usually considered low-income. The people who come here feel safe and protected. Many get strength and hope to carry on. Peace House is a vibrant community where anyone who enters will be respected and encouraged.

Open from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, Peace House welcomes about 60 people per day. For the first hour people without homes come to get stuff from their lockers, clean up and change clothes, pick up phone calls and have a cup of coffee before going to work or to do errands. At 11:30 the doors are locked for meditation and lunch.

A number of ethnic origins and religions and non-religions are represented; ages range from toddlers to octogenarians. Many people involved in the Peace House community are unemployable or hard to employ because of mental health problems, prison records or chronic chemical dependency, disease, disabilities and dysfunctions. Wounded veterans and members of Veterans for Peace find their way to Peace House. Sometimes people who work in the neighborhood or students from colleges and high schools come to visit. People who participate are not identified or defined by their income, or lack of it; they are valued for their own singular experiences and their need for peace and spiritual companionship.

It was a brisk, hazy afternoon the first time I visited. Outside, a woman named Marge explained that “this is a community,” and told me to go in and make myself at home while she finished her smoke. She told me right away I should come for meditation the next day.

The room was packed. A few people were sleeping, many wore their hats and coats. A little boy and a woman were carrying a toy train around the room playing “going to California.”

A big, bright sign painted on the opposite wall said “Welcome to Peace House.” Underneath it were various signs expressing ideals for Peace House, all created by community consensus: Sharing responsibilities, Genuine concern of each other, Be yourself/No labels, Respecting other’s views, Laughter and sadness, Disagreeing but staying connected … And some specific rules: If you use foul language or you are verbally disruptive you will be asked to leave.

Marge is a fun-loving volunteer who started coming to Peace House almost from the beginning with her friend Catherine. They’re both from a Catholic church in Golden Valley.

A guy sitting close by was holding a canister of cookies. The woman next to him wanted the cookies next, but for some reason he wouldn’t give them to her. The little fight, or teasing, or whatever it was, went on for about a minute. Then Marge just took the cookies and passed them on. She has a lot of authority. She calls everyone, with total sincerity, “sweetheart” and “honey.”

I started talking to people. Michael was sitting next to me. He belongs to the Nation of Islam and is from Kansas City. He said he likes to sleep a lot but also likes to cook, mostly soups and stews. His friend Derrick, who is also Muslim, joined us. He likes to read poetry and English literature and especially loves watching TV. But he said watching TV doesn’t help him know what is going on in Afghanistan. “I’m not the President,” he complained. He’s probably right that only the President really knows.

Volunteer Walter Nelson has been homeless for a long time. His dad was a police officer and became a witness whose knowledge was dangerous to the family so the family was moved to Chicago through a witness protection program. Then the family separated and his mother was beaten by her boyfriend and died of pneumonia in the hospital. He grew up and married and had three children who are now grown. Two of his nephews have died violently in Minneapolis in the last decade, one shot by the police and one shot in a gang battle. In 1987, Walter was left for dead in a hit and run accident. He spent 13 weeks in a coma, developed gangrene and nearly lost his leg. The prognosis was that he would always be in a wheelchair, but he learned to walk again. He is left with somewhat debilitating memory lapses and a chemical imbalance from a demerol drip. A criminal record resulting from “my own bad choices” makes it hard to find employment; however, he finds plenty of volunteer work. He said he should have a PhD in public relations—helping people. He volunteers at Peace House, St. Stephens and Catholic Charities Branch III. Lately, for the next month, he has a gig in the kitchen at St. Stephens.

Shortly before closing, Harry, who is blind, and his wife, Shirley, brought in day-old goods they collected from Super America and Lunds. They come almost every day. I found out that my friend Joan collects leftovers at Whole Foods once a week and brings them over. There are others who do the same.

Noon at Peace House

The next day, I got there in time for meditation and lunch. A young man introduced himself to me as an activist and an MI (mentally ill) individual. He spends a lot of his time at Peace House and at Spectrum House, an agency that helped him find housing where he can pay a fraction of his disability check.

To open the gathering, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. One guy said he was Felix and then, to be silly, another guy said he was Felix, too. One guy said his name was Gandhi to appreciative smiles. Some kids from St. Olaf College and from Cretin Durham High School were there.

The discussion revolved around affordable housing. Why can’t old buildings be renovated? Why are they torn down? Where will the federal housing money go this year? A plan to invite the new mayor to visit Peace House was proposed and several people volunteered to work on the invitation. (As we went to press the mayor canceled a scheduled visit, but some are hopeful he’ll have time at a later date.)

After a portion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was read, someone commented that Arizona and Texas are the only states that don’t celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. Janet, the facilitator, opened the meditation with the question, “What are our dreams?”

When race came into the conversation she emphasized that there is no scientific basis for four, five or six races—or “six and Hispanic,” which made everyone laugh. “You need to know that,” she went on, “we all have red blood and breathe the same air.”

A man who wanted to remain anonymous asked, “Would it make a difference if there was a scientific difference?”

Somebody asked, “What do you have against scientists?”

“Scientists don’t believe in God,” he answered.

Someone else offered, “God IS a scientist.”

Somebody talked about the woman who was mayor of Chicago who went to live in the difficult projects—Cabrini Green—and opened up houses for people to live in.

After the discussion there were prayers: for someone who was in labor right at that moment, for the stress in one person’s living situation, for someone’s nephew-in-law who was having a back operation, for anyone who would sleep outside that night—the forecast was for five below.

Steve, the sous chef, served lunch. The food is cooked and brought in daily by the volunteer coordinators. Of course, anyone in the room is welcome to wash dishes, and the dishes always get done.

During the meal, Stevie, who suffers from schizophrenia and is obviously well-loved by the group, told me, “I’m a genius except I’m slow.” He told me he had originated the motto for Peace House that’s on their calling card, “A Place to Belong.”

After lunch I talked with Sally, who had stayed at Marie Sandvik’s off and on for many years. She’s thankful for the seven weeks she has been able to live in Mary Hall in St. Paul where she has her own room with a lock and key and her own refrigerator and pantry. She shares a kitchen and bath. Although theoretically she could stay at Mary Hall for up to 10 years, she hopes in two years she can live in a regular apartment. Several hurdles stand in the way, though: She has an unlawful detainer on her record and she struggles with certain dysfunctions. She wants to learn to cook but can’t go to school “until she is more grounded.” This month her monthly SSI money went to ordering pizzas, so now she’s short on food. She knows it was “unwise.”

Regino has lived in Minnesota for six years. In fall he had a roofing accident, after three days on the job, in which his spinal column was separated. He still hasn’t been paid for those three days and the guy in charge is out of town until April. Regino and his wife don’t live together anymore, he said, because he hit his children. His frustration at not being able to control his daughters, whose behavior he believes is not OK, was apparent. His sadness, for a person of such an obviously happy temperament, and his confusion at American culture and his respect for his wife were moving. The support of a church community didn’t seem like an option for him. He said everyone was too insincere. He likes Peace House and goes there often.

While we were talking, Stevie read me a poem he had just written.

Rebecca is a 22-year-old welfare-to-work mom who is temporarily out of work because of a clavicle injury. Luckily she’s been able to hold on to her apartment, and the daycare where she works is holding her job for her until she’s better. Her little boy runs around Peace House and plays with everyone. He’s been part of the community since he was 2 days old.

I felt I was meeting heroic people. They are still standing. They have hope. They laugh. A man who called himself Ed said he came to Minneapolis from Chicago for a job quite a few years ago. But then he busted his knee cap, couldn’t work and plunged into a downward spiral. His life was radically changed. Now he’s been homeless for a long time and lives outside. He said the first thing that goes are your feet. It’s impossible to keep them dry and warm. It’s hard to get the right shoes. He suffers from depression. Yet, he said that he prefers being outside to being inside. One day in meditation, the leader asked people to talk about their talents—Ed and a buddy said they were “really talented at surviving.”

I realized again how easily a person can enter into a life of abject poverty when struck with an accident or a debilitating disease, especially if they have no family support. The memorial shelf with pictures and memory-mementos of Peace House community people who have died over the years attests to the toll that poverty takes.

The Peace House story

I couldn’t interview the founder of Peace House, Rose Tillemans, by telephone because she had an earache; the vibrations of a voice on the phone were too painful for her. The program coordinator at Peace House, Gail Hayden, who has adopted Tillemans as her spiritual mentor, said Rose’s earache is the result of hearing so many painful stories for so many years.

Later when Rose was better, we talked in person. While we were talking, she received a phone call, but she wouldn’t take it. She said she will never drop one person for another. She gives her full attention to the matter at hand.

Rose Tillemans is a 79-year-old nun who belongs to the socially conscious Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She left her ministry as a classroom teacher in 1974 to join another sister, Rita Steinhagen, at the Free Store, which Steinhagen founded in 1969. During the 10 years Tillemans worked at the Free Store she came to believe that people living on a subsistence level needed spiritual support once some of their basic needs were met. At the free store she was overwhelmed with the chaos. “There was no place to sit down and just talk and listen.” It became her dream to create a place where people living in the most debilitating levels of poverty could gather with dignity to share with other people their lives, their wisdom and their struggles.

She raised $3,000 from friends, family and backers whom she petitioned personally. In her search for rental property, she came across the current building on Franklin Avenue. The owner, John Bacich, was rehabbing the building and, enthusiastic about her project, offered her the low rent of $500 per month. In 15 years he never raised the rent and in 1999 decided the rent payments had paid for the building and put it in Peace House’s name. Tillemans said he was proud of what his building had become.

The early days of Peace House were difficult. Once Tillemans signed the lease, the neighborhood and the City Council gave her a hard time. People were afraid that this “agency” was one too many. What the lady at the Dairy Queen said would happen apparently never did: “Your customers will come and clobber my customers.” When Tillemans described, in a Phillips neighborhood meeting, what she was trying to do at Peace House, “they almost booed.”

And not many people took advantage of the sanctuary that Peace House was offering. The concept was perhaps too strange. No one really knew what it was for. After 13 days the Star Tribune sent a reporter who interviewed Tillemans for an hour and a half, slept through meditation, left for awhile and returned later. Only two women had visited all day. The reporter asked, “How many people came in today?” Today Tillemans laughs at how much she wanted people to show up. “Counting the ones who went out to smoke and came back in, there were about 14 who ‘came through the door.’ ”

Tillemans lost heart and called Bacich asking to be released from her lease. But he encouraged her, “Look what Jesus suffered,” to which Tillemans replied, “Yeah, and look what happened to him.”

But in the end she didn’t give up. She did, however, realize she had to put out coffee and doughnuts. That really helped.

The vision for Peace House was and still is a place for equals, not a place where the haves give handouts to the have-nots. Rose didn’t want to “reach a hand down.” She wanted a place with no hierarchy—a gathering for people no matter what their walk of life. When it is necessary to ask someone to leave, it is not done by the “authorities” but rather by peers.

Meditation time creates a platform for people whose voices are disregarded. Tillemans said, “The best way to change society is to listen to voices—it’s the affirmation of each person’s voice.” She went on, “People here are very bright—they’ve had tough bounces.”

To sum up her philosophy, Tillemans said thoughtfully, “I look benevolently on the people I encounter and do not have expectations that they will think like I do. I don’t teach or proselytize. The Church has done a number on poor people and there is no proselytizing allowed [at Peace House]. People have a right to hang on to what is meaningful to them. [We have to] let go of shame-based religion and religions that claim they alone have truth.”

Tillemans is tiny, tough and funny. Her humor cracks through, like a chick hatching. She led the meditation one of the days I was there and I was struck again, as I was earlier in our conversation, by the kindness in her voice. She called everyone to quietness and to “remember the beautiful person that you are. Forget the names you’ve been called,” and then added with a chuckle, “I was thinking of myself on that one.” A young man across the room looked like his face was literally bathed in the gentleness of her words, like a plant soaking up sunshine.

Peace House functions on a yearly budget of $56,000 donated by churches and individuals. A year ago Gail Hayden got a grant to come on board as program coordinator. She’s a tall, lovely blond with to-diefor skin who walks with a cane and lives with lupus, a genetic auto-immune disease. She’s a former banker who raised five children as a single mother. When she got involved at Peace House, the “meaningless conversations about vacations and ‘where did I go to school?’ and ‘what do I do for a living?’ which were ‘driving me quietly out of my mind’ disappeared.” Her colorful, dramatic vintage clothing (she keeps things forever) and genteel manner coupled with a feisty, passionate spirit endear her to the community. She does what she can to steer people to helpful resources for housing, chemical dependency treatment, health care, you name it.

Time and again she is moved by the generosity of people at Peace House. Many have given her amulets or other good luck objects to protect her from the lupus that attacks her body. Others, “with nothing but the clothes on their back give one layer to someone else or they give half their food not knowing if there’s a meal ahead, giving because they recognized a need and honored it.”

The Peace House dilemma

The future of Peace House is up in the air. According to Hayden, it all started the day after Christmas in the year 2000 when the Central Community Housing Trust (CCHT) offered to buy the Peace House building. Peace House was shocked and said no, they weren’t for sale. Then they learned about the Portland Gateway project—a collaboration of CCHT, a respected nonprofit affordable housing developer; Hope Community, a nonprofit housing and community organization with a long history of service in the Phillips neighborhood; and Franklin Avenue Development (FAD), a for-profit corporation that is no longer a member of the collaboration. Peace House representatives realized the development would be good for the neighborhood and didn’t want to stand in the way.

A written offer from Hope Community in spring of 2001 was rejected for being too vague. Another offer came from FAD in August, but Peace House’s temporary pro bono commercial real estate attorney, Kathy Hayden (no relation to Gail), said she saw too many red flags. She said that a reasonable offer would have to put Peace House “in the same position they’re in now.”

All negotiations between Peace House and the Portland Gateway Collaborative have ended inconclusively. Deanna Foster, director of Hope Community, told me they are very intent upon creating a win-win solution. She said there would “unequivocally” be space for Peace House in the development. Meanwhile, Peace House is waiting for a reasonable offer in writing.

Peace House has established that it needs, at least, 1,600 square feet, maybe 2,000; four parking spaces; relocation costs; zoning approval from the city; three unisex bathrooms; a kitchen with a triple sink; handicapped accessibility; and a location within six blocks of where they are now. The list has been given to Alan Arthur, director of CCHT, and he is confident that an agreement will be reached. He understands that Peace House “feels like a hammer is hanging over its head and if a solution isn’t reached today, the hammer might hit them tomorrow.” His goal is to “keep talking” and when an agreeable solution is reached, “Peace House will be better off than it is now.” He said a new offer will be presented to them in early March.

The people who make up the Peace House board of directors—Tillemans, Hayden and various longtime volunteer coordinators—are not deliberately holding up the development. They are simply looking out for their people and trying to preserve a strong neighborhood entity—which operates a respectable block club; was wholeheartedly accepted by the late Brian Coyle, after his initial reluctance; is considered a “cousin” to Hope Community, according to Hope’s director; and, recently, receives the support of City Council Member Dean Zimmerman, of the 6th Ward.

Peace House is a beautiful community where people accept each other and, strange as it may seem, laugh together a lot—there is gallows humor, bawdy humor, intellectual and sophisticated humor, silliness and, last but not least, Tillemans’ droll wit. Who would want to lose this special and unparalleled place?

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