ORLEANS — If you think Cape Cod doesn't have a prayer of solving its housing crisis, think again.
Prayer itself is one of the elements involved in an effort to create short-term housing for people who find themselves without shelter during one of life's transitions. Heidi Scheffler and Stephane Ruault of Brewster, parishioners of St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Orleans, have been praying, studying, and planning about such a place for the last couple of years.
As a volunteer advocate working with the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, Scheffler was taking a turn answering the Cape chapter's emergency cell phone when she heard from a woman looking for a place to stay before her job started the following month. “I'm living in my car with my 9-year-old daughter,” the woman said.
The Society was able to provide some short-term assistance, but Scheffler recalled that “it was hard for me to get back to my neighborhood, where there are lots of empty houses at times, even empty rooms... I began thinking, 'Everything isn't all-perfect. Everything doesn't look like my neighborhood. I don't want to turn my face from that reality. I want to live my life knowing that's the case.”
Scheffler came to realize that “we need something transitional that's not shelter for one night or a couple of weeks, not a hotel room for a couple of nights, not a rental property for [people] with low income.”
Thus began a period of discernment with her husband. “We kind of responded to this call on the phone,” Ruault said, “but there was a deeper call which is a spiritual call.” Citing Pope Francis's encyclical “Laudato Si,” he noted that, “When we talk about ecology, if we don't take into account the human perspective, if we just talk about sea and air and don't also add human beings as components of nature, we miss the point.”
That thinking led to the image of a three-legged stool: a place with a housing component, a spiritual component, and a permaculture component, the last of which Ruault defines as “a very respectful way to produce foods, vegetables, anything from Mother Earth in a respectful and restoring way.”
They interviewed people on and off the Cape, thinking at first of finding a large piece of land, but were advised to start small. They narrowed their focus to the Lower Cape, and then learned one possible site was literally right in front of them.
Members of St. Joan of Arc told them about the 1850s house at the corner of Route 6A and Canal Road diagonally across the street. Owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, it has been unoccupied for years.
At a meeting of the Nauset Interfaith Association's Youth Outreach Hospitality group, Scheffler spoke about the couple's ideas, their interest in the building, and their hope that it could be renovated through a community effort. That intrigued Fr. Ken Campbell, the Association's convener, who thought a fellow member of the Church of the Holy Spirit might be interested.
As a member of Carpenters Without Borders, Ian Ellison has traveled far to recreate the wheel truss of a medieval castle on the Seine, restore a 15th century barn in Normandy, and literally raise the roof of a Romanian building to add a second floor for a community and training center. Ellison was intrigued by the building's Mansard roof and history as housing for workers at the nearby French Cable Station.
Allowed entry by a real estate agent, Ruault and Ellison explored the property, using a cellphone's illumination to check the foundation. “To my surprise,” Ruault said, “he said the house is fine. It needs what he calls cosmetics.”
Yesterday (Aug. 21), Ellison was to meet with the town's site plan review committee for an informal review of what is admittedly an informal plan to redevelop the building with units for temporary housing there and in a matching extension going back down Canal Road. Open space would be preserved for flower and vegetable gardens. The common rooms would include a chapel, or in Ellison's words, a “quiet” room.
“When we talk about prayer, a chapel, and the spiritual nature of the project, many people are frightened that we would be somehow requiring people to pray if they want to live in the house,” Scheffler wrote in a follow-up email. “The house will be open to all. There is no discrimination. Prayer is absolutely optional. Christianity is our identity, but it need not be anyone else's.”
If the project goes forward, Ellison said, he imagines fellow tradespeople and businesses stepping up to donate labor and materials, and others cooking food for workers under a tent.
Once the possibilities are sorted out through the town's informal review, the next step would be to approach the diocese about a possible sale. “With regard to the property located at 54 Route 6A in Orleans,” communications director John Kearns wrote in an email reply to The Chronicle, “the Fall River Diocese is currently in litigation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for compensation for a portion of that parcel taken by the state for a highway improvement project. The property has previously been on the market for sale, and it remains the intention of the Diocese to sell it. The Diocese welcomes proposals from anyone interested in purchasing the property.”
Scheffler and Ruault are intrigued by the possibilities of a community land trust buying the property and providing a 99-year lease for existing and future structures. And they're also open to hearing from people who have land elsewhere on the Lower Cape.
For now, Ruault cautions, “we do not even exist, legally speaking. We are just Heidi and Stephane who happened to meet the right people. For the moment, it's just the egg, nothing more than that. We have to know if it's doable.”
The couple offers prayers for the project at a weekly silent prayer circle held in Room 210 of the Harwich Cultural Center on Sisson Road Fridays from 6 to 6:45 p.m. If you'd like to attend, or offer other assistance, write to firstname.lastname@example.org