A decision by the cash-strapped Milwaukee District Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul -- an international Catholic lay organization structured around serving the poor and needy -- to borrow $3.2 million to build a suburban thrift store has caused a rift within the organization.
Critics say the new store will be too far from the poor communities the society serves in Milwaukee and, more importantly, is too far from the organization's mission to directly serve the poor.
"[The board members] say they need a store where they can make money from what they sell," Bob Graf, a Vincentian volunteer, told NCR. "It's the traditional trickle-down theory that never works. It's morally wrong. People give us clothes and furniture to give to the poor, not sell to the wealthy."
At a meeting May 14, board members responded with confidence that the plan would restore the society to a stronger financial footing, allowing the organization to better meet the needs of the poor.
Board member E. Michael McCann, a former Milwaukee County district attorney, said opening a for-profit store is critical to the society's future.
"Until a few years ago, we brought in $200,000 to $400,000 a year," McCann said at the board meeting. "That's no longer true. A couple years ago, the auditors said we had to do something drastic to bring in more revenue or we would be in a crisis. It was a very real possibility the organization would collapse."
Rosemary Storts, the board's president, said the council from the adjacent Waukesha County, a wealthier area, recently proposed opening a thrift store in Greenfield, a southern suburban community, and offered to give the Milwaukee council 5 percent of the profits. "Why should we settle for $30,000?" she asked.
Graf, a local peace activist who operated a printing business in Madison, Wis., before his retirement, questioned the assumption that the store would be profitable because of the mortgage and salaries for 30 new employees.
"I don't see how you are going to make money and pay off the $3.2 million loan," he said. "As a businessman, it's hard for me to see how you are going to do that."
Jim Judziewicz, a former board member who resigned in February, told NCR in a telephone interview that only a little more than 10 percent of the money spent by the society went to direct aid for the poor; the rest was spent on wages and operational expenses. He said that was one of the reasons he left after 14 years with the organization, including six on the board.
Storts denied Judziewicz's figures, saying in an email that the administration fees are only 9 percent. The society pays staff at the store, those who coordinate the meal programs, social workers who make home visitations, and others who train and oversee the volunteers. The society provides $1.6 million in goods and services as well as 167,000 meals to the needy in Milwaukee County.
Judziewicz said the 2009-10 annual budget showed the administration costs as $801,481. Salaries for the employees amounted to $1,670,677, and direct services to the poor accounted for $299,566. He acknowledged that a number of administrative positions have been eliminated and that some programs have also been cut. He says the society could save money by selling its office building and moving to a smaller space in a parish, a theme repeated by critics at the board meeting.
Judziewicz said during his board tenure, only 574 requests for assistance came from people who live in the Greenfield area, while more than 4,700 came from the impoverished north side of Milwaukee, where he believes a store should be located.
The current store on the south side of Milwaukee is in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, where the needy can use vouchers to buy clothing, sofas, beds and other household goods. Judziewicz said that store tried to convert to a for-profit operation for about six months last year.
"I was very critical of it," Judziewicz said. "They raised the prices of sofas from $125 to maybe $300. People would go in with a voucher for $125 and couldn't afford to buy a sofa. I asked what was going on and was told that they had to prove to the banks that they could make a profit."
Storts said the information was incorrect. Sales dropped only slightly in 2013.
Marvin Crowe, a board member who represents two conferences affiliated with St. Martin de Porres and St. Benedict the Moor, two predominantly African-American parishes on the north side, said it was difficult for the needy in his area to get to the existing south side store and added that going to the suburban location would be even harder.
A bus trip to the proposed Greenfield store from each of the two north side parishes -- St. Catherine's and St. Martin de Porres -- would take more than an hour and a half each way if a person leaves home at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, according to the bus company's interactive website. By contrast, going to the current location at 2320 W. Lincoln Ave. would take about 45 minutes by bus.
Storts said the board plans to open a store on the north side within two or three years using the profits from the proposed Greenfield store.
Crowe responded that there is a need now. "If my budget were doubled, I couldn't get to all the people who need help." Graf also asked if any of the board members had seen the business plan for the store. Only one said he had: Richard Buschmann, the board's treasurer.
In response to questions, board members said the loans -- one would cover 75 percent of the costs and the other, 25 percent -- have not been finalized and that the society's investment funds and other property owned by the society, most of it in poor neighborhoods, would be used as collateral.
"We are not seeing it as a risk," Storts told NCR after the meeting. "Everything is a risk, but to not open the store is a greater risk."
Storts declined to give details of the negotiations for the loan or to say which bank was being considered.
The plan to open the store at 4500 S. 108th St. in Greenfield became public in April. It will be located in a former Wal-Mart now owned by The Ridge Community Church, an evangelical denomination. The store would use 35,000 square feet of the 110,000-square-foot property. It would be separated from the church in what was described as a condo arrangement.
Storts acknowledged that the church had agreed to pay the city's annual fees in lieu of taxes for city services and also build a path connecting to a Little League field. The store would be responsible for part of both fees, she said.
Graf and others questioned whether the presence of a nearby new Wal-Mart and a number of nonprofit and for-profit thrift stores would bode ill for the Vincentian business.
"We're thrilled by [the competition]," Storts told NCR after the meeting. "There are people who go from one thrift store to the next when they go on a shopping trip. We all have different merchandise, so I think their presence will only help us."
Michelle Martin, the district finance director, sent an email to Vincentians in the Milwaukee area inviting them to a May 29 open house at the proposed store. Judziewicz said he and others are planning to picket outside the store during the open house.
Storts said the board would like the store to open in early fall.
An outdated model?
Capuchin Fr. David Preuss, pastor of St. Martin De Porres and St. Benedict the Moor, said the St. Vincent de Paul conferences that serve his parishes are among those that receive the most financial support from the society's Milwaukee council.
"For that, I am grateful," Preuss said. "Without that assistance, we would not have much to give out."
He maintains that the problem is the structure for the organization. Conferences, or local groups, are generally affiliated with a parish and serve the parish neighborhood.
Milwaukee County has 51 such conferences with 900 parish volunteers who visit the poor. All but eight "needy conferences" give money to support the Milwaukee council, the administrative body in the county, and some is distributed to the local conferences, more to the poorest. The conferences also raise money to help the needy in their own parishes.
If a person is in need -- most notably for furniture, appliances or clothing -- a call is placed to the main office. The main office relays the information to the local parish conference, and a volunteer is dispatched to visit the needy person at home. After discussing the person's needs, the Vincentian volunteer will give a voucher that can be used to buy a bed, a sofa, clothing or other material needs. The voucher does not include transportation and the recipient must find a way of getting goods -- even larger items such as beds and sofas -- home.
"It worked 70 years ago, but it's not working today," Preuss said. "In the old days, you had streets where wealthy people and the poor lived, all in the same parish. Now the poor and the rich do not only live in different cities but in different counties."
Some of the counties outside the urban center have poor people in need of assistance -- but not the same concentration -- and have more affluent residents, he said. "The same economic separation we see between the rich and the poor in society we also see in the church," he said.
Preuss said he believes there is a need to reconsider the structure of the organization -- not just in Milwaukee -- but all over the country in order to better address its mission of serving the poor.
[Marie Rohde is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.]