San Diego’s Way of Ending Poverty


By Vann Ellison

Finish high school, get a job, and wait to get married: that assertion comes from Brookings Institution 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 San Diego already in poverty, the homeless, the drug addicted and those suffering from domestic violence or who grew up in horrific conditions as children. 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,” as he put it.

Today, few but outside of 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 that shows that, yes, there is a compassionate side of modern urban America.

Research released last month from Baylor University quantifies the impact of faith-based organizations in San Diego and elsewhere. Based on HUD data, researchers at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion found over a third, or 37%, of all emergency shelter beds in the city are provided by faith-based groups such as Catholic Charities, Father Joe’s Villages and Interfaith Shelter of San Diego.

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 ability to measure personal outcomes in billion dollar programs such as housing vouchers and project developer assistance is virtually non-existent and the agency is simply not set up to do so. 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 non-religious 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 save taxpayer dollars and enable long-term solutions for addressing social ills.

San Diego’s “Project 25,” profiled in the Baylor report, shows how government and the faith-based community can work cohesively. Involving San Diego County, the San Diego Housing Commission, United Way and Father Joe’s Villages, the original purpose of this initiative was to assist 25 chronically homeless individuals who were placing the heaviest burdens on taxpayers through frequent emergency room visits, arrests and the like.

Deacon Jim Vargas, President and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages, said in the Baylor report, allied organizations continue to assist homeless individuals. However, public funding for the project has ended and he said the region still “has a long way to go to” to sustain this effort. Religion can help, however, when money can’t.

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. Government programs do not create happy marriages. 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 mean something.

The challenge before all of us is to get government and religious organizations working together locally, creating efficiencies, measuring performance and identifying individual needs. We will then be transforming lives, going beyond bureaucratic approaches of the past, and renewing the fight on poverty.

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

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