City planning is not and should not be about moving people out of the way because of ugly and unfortunate stereotypes or perceived socio-economic inconveniences. Yet that is exactly what is at the heart of the imbroglio over what to do with The Carpenter’s Corner, a Christian ministry located in a downtown church basement that serves a daily meal to those who have fallen on hard times.
Let’s be clear. The issues are not “the look” of downtown corridors or the class of clientele gathering across the street from established storefronts, but rather they are these: the grip of poverty, joblessness, the scarcity of decent jobs, inequality, homelessness, mental health and, yes, drug addiction. The issues are far more important to address than deciding which building the mayor will next take a wrecking ball to, and they are far more complex and complicated than signing a demolition order. Tearing down an old, dilapidated structure is easy by comparison. Building up a meaningful life from near ruin is more of a challenge – and a test of a city’s character.
Not everyone has been happy about the philanthropy’s downtown location, and there is a cadre of business men and women who have been outspoken for awhile now to sweep what they largely regard as human refuse from their front stoops.
The presence of The Carpenter’s Corner patrons, they have said, harms the image of downtown Beckley
Salvation seemed at hand when Oshel Craigo, a former state senator and an owner of Gino’s Spaghetti and Pizza and Tudor’s Biscuit World, promised to deed a former Tudor’s building at the intersection of Fourth Street and Robert C. Byrd Drive to the ministry.
The relocation would give The Carpenter’s Corner a permanent home where its volunteers would continue to serve a hot lunch to a diversity of people in need – typically about 100 to 150 folks – five days a week. The lunch is free. The furnishings are basic. Folding chairs and tables are set up where diners can sit and chat or “find fellowship.” A painted picture of the Last Supper is framed and hung on one wall.
Nobody is turned away, regardless of socio-economic status.
But just as soon as the proposed relocation was announced, a couple of businessmen in the new neighborhood voiced their concern. NIMBY – “not in my back yard” – had reared its ugly head, and in truth, given this community’s image yet another black eye.
Said one: “I don’t think it’s a good idea, because of the type of clientele that they bring into the neighborhood. ... We have enough people on the streets walking, that are drug people, and all the different things.”
Said another: “... if there’s 40 churches that support Carpenter’s Corner, let’s put it in another church. Let’s take it up to United Methodist Temple and see how that goes over with their congregation. Let’s take it to the Presbyterian church.”
Here is the inconvenient truth: About 20 percent of Beckleyans live below the national poverty level. Statewide, nearly 25 percent of children – one in four – live in poverty. According to worldpopulationreview.com, part-time workers are more likely than the unemployed to live below poverty level in the city. Three percent of those in Beckley who have full-time jobs live in poverty.
On a recent weekday, Matthew Myers was standing in line at Carpenter’s Corner. Myers, 34, works at a fast food restaurant in Beckley. He loves the food and comes for lunch any day that he is not at work.
On this day, Myers was sitting next to his boss, 37-year-old Aaron Webker, late-shift manager of the fast food restaurant where he has worked the past three years.
Neither was homeless, unemployed or hooked on drugs. Both pay rent and their utility bills.
In a world where poverty, addiction and mental illness are stigmatized, The Carpenter’s Corner is a place where struggling people are not shunned. Its presence downtown or along Eisenhower Drive is not a “bad look” for the city, rather just the opposite.
Its ministry speaks well of the people who live here. It says citizens of this city care for the vulnerable.
This issue is not about The Carpenter’s Corner or its location. It is about how we, as a civil society, treat those who are down on their luck. What is our social policy? What is the city’s plan? And how does that reflect our collective values? The humanitarian answers rest with the citizens of this city and we expect our elected officials – public servants – to do what’s right by those who need a hand up.
Do that and the city’s image will shine a little brighter.