Seattle Faith-Based Org Tames Homeless “Jungle”

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By Vann Ellison

Finish high school, get a job, and wait to get married:  that is Ben Carson’s advice on how young people can avoid poverty.   Recently confirmed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Carson’s assertion is derived from research that indeed shows overwhelming numbers of people in their 20’s join the middle class by following these steps.

Sadly, such advice comes too late for too many in Seattle already in poverty.   President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or “HUD,” as part of his War on Poverty 50 years ago so cities would not become “symbols of a sordid society.” Today, few outside Washington D.C. believe public housing programs will lead to the creation of “shining cities on the hill.” This lofty phrase embodies the ideal of a compassionate society, has biblical roots, and was later popularized by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. There is now hard evidence there is a compassionate side of modern urban America.

Research released last month from Baylor University quantifies the impact of faith-based organizations in Seattle and elsewhere.   Based on HUD data, researchers at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion found nearly two-thirds, or 63%, of all emergency shelter beds in the city are provided by faith-based groups such as Catholic Community Services, the Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission.

These organizations and similar ones throughout the country rely mostly on private donations, focus on helping individuals attain self-sufficiency and measure their results. HUD’s priority is not to measure personal outcomes in billion dollar programs.  Yet faith-based organizations can help government succeed in fighting poverty and homelessness.

To its credit, HUD established local coordinating organizations around the country bringing together local government, faith-based groups, and secular non-profits and charities.   In theory, this will enable government and the private sector to coordinate services and maximize resources.  For example, can police officers or emergency medical technicians divert certain substance abusers to non-profit drug rehabilitation facilities instead of taking them to jail or the emergency room?  These efficiencies enable long-term solutions for addressing social ills. 

The reality is often different however.   Local coordinating organizations, operating under HUD rules, have become widely seen throughout the country as grant-compliance seminars, distributing paperwork on what organizations must do to receive government funding.  Carson, in Senate confirmation hearings last month, repeatedly talked about taking a “holistic” approach addressing individual circumstances causing homelessness, a detailed process that goes beyond simply putting a roof over someone’s head. 

Seattle Mayor Edward Murray enlisted the assistance of Union Gospel Mission to help clear out the crime-riddled homeless encampment under Interstate 5 widely known as the “Jungle.”Jeff Lilley, President of the Gospel Mission recounted the operation in Baylor’s report.  

The key in this successful effort, according to Lilly, was avoiding a massive herding operation of homeless people but rather to understand the unique circumstances of each individual, which in turn, enabled a longer-term solution to the problem.  Remarkably, Lilly’s organization refused city funds for this operation.  Such community service is a tenet of all the world’s great religions and helps avoid jungles of human misery.

Baylor cites research indicating that Americans who regularly attend services at a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque are less likely to cheat on their partners, less likely to abuse them, more likely to enjoy happier marriages, less likely to have been divorced, and less likely to live in poverty.   Religion helps bind families together so that children can actually grow up in an environment where finishing high school, getting a job, and waiting to get married matter.

The challenge before us is to get government and religious organizations to create efficiencies, measure performance and identify individual needs.  We will then be transforming lives, going beyond the stale bureaucratic approaches of the past, and fight poverty with new energy and enthusiasm.  

Rev. Vann Ellison is the CEO of St. Matthew’s House in Naples, FL which provides innovative solutions to poverty, homelessness and substance abuse.

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