An Open Letter to the Faith-based Group that Wants to Help People that are Homeless

Dear (insert name of church, temple, synagogue, mosque, etc.),

In the name of (insert deity believed in/worshipped), I understand you are called upon to help humankind as a way of living your faith and putting into practice the teachings of your religion. This is most welcome, and we are grateful that you have chosen to help people that are experiencing homelessness. I am an expert in the field of homelessness, so while it is unsolicited by you, I want to take this opportunity to fill you in on ways that would be most helpful, and the stuff you may be thinking of doing that will just get in the way of what experts are trying to achieve.

If you are like me, you have been in a hospital emergency room once or more in your life. I suspect you have been frustrated with wait times and wished there was someone, somewhere that could show up to help out with people that are ill, injured, or otherwise suffering. I hope we both agree that medicine should be practiced by medical professionals. While many hospitals were started by people of faith, and many of the early administrators and funders were called to start the hospital because of their beliefs, they understood that the actual practice of medicine should be left to people with appropriate training, expertise, and education. Because you are, perhaps, unfamiliar with homelessness (though you see it every day), the work of ending homelessness is much the same. Day in and day out, professionals in this field engage with people with tremendous traumatic histories, physical ailments, long histories of housing instability, people that have a history of conflict with the law, family relationships that broke down because they were unhealthy, addiction and dependency, mental illness, and/or, detachment from others. We focus on ending people’s homelessness even with all of this knowledge. In fact, most of the people we see on a daily basis are likely more complex in their case history than the typical person you would find in an emergency room of a hospital. So, just as you would not want an untrained professional practicing medicine, I hope you can appreciate that we would prefer that you don’t practice ending homelessness with people that you are untrained to effectively engage with; people that you could end up making their life worse instead of better, even when you are well intentioned.

First, can we talk food?

Christians reading this are probably familiar with this idea of What Would Jesus Do? Other religions may have similar sentiments. If you really care about food security, we would appreciate that you spent your time and resources advocating that people have a livable wage or adequate food stamps or other income supports so that they can obtain nutritious food of their choosing. Are day old donuts really the best you can do? Bologna? Whiz? Did you think that maybe people’s oral hygiene has been compromised a bit, and that hard granola bars and the like would be difficult to chew and consume. How much coffee should a person really consume in a day? Is a high-fructose fruit cocktail from concentrate really going to benefit the individual?

Some of you open up your places of worship and serve a meal to people that are homeless. From my experience, many of you go to great lengths to prepare a magnificent feast. Members of your congregations showcase their best recipes with loving spoonfuls. And whereas you would expect a restaurant or cafeteria to ensure everyone to be trained and qualified in safe food handling, and that all food comes from an inspected source, too often you – as remarkably well intentioned as you are – are putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk. Food poisoning is terrible when you are housed and have your own bathroom (even though you probably called it something like a 24 hour flu – of which there is no such thing medically speaking – and was most likely food poisoning), but you can imagine how much more awful the experience is when you are sheltered with a bunch of other people or living on the streets.

One more thing on food, if I may. If you look at the calendar there are several turkey opportunities coming up. While I don’t know of any empirical research, I suspect people that are homeless like turkey as much as housed people. What would be awesome is if you put the same amount of money and effort into getting housing, paying for first and last, or damage deposits – or even time-limited shallow subsidies – as you do organizing turkey drives and banquets. Heck, this year you may even want to forego the turkey. If I was homeless and I was given the option of turkey or a home, I would go with a home.

Secondly, let us talk about those people you want to help that are living outside.

You may not be aware that there are professional street outreach workers in most communities. These women and men are trained in the art of engagement and rapport building to get people living outdoors connected to services that will end their homelessness. Many communities are housing people directly from parks, street corners, under bridges, cars, and the like. These professionals most often know how to do the work without re-traumatizing the person with whom they are engaging. They are likely prioritizing with whom they engage and what they are trying to accomplish in any given day or night, because there are quite likely more people outside than there is capacity within outreach services.

I don’t want to paint any group of people experiencing homelessness with too broad of a brush stroke, but suffice to say many of the people you are seeing outside are amongst the people with the most complex needs and histories you will ever meet. Rarely are housing problems solved in one encounter. Heck, there are some people outside that lack trust of any organization because they have been burned too many times.

But did you know that the weather elements are not one of the leading causes of death for people that are homeless? You thought it was because you didn’t have the facts. So, I suspect you have or were planning on doing a drive to bring people sleeping bags and tarps and tents and such. All that does is make the work of the professional outreach workers harder in most instances. If anyone is going to hand out survival gear, probably best that the professionals determine when it is appropriate and when it is enabling. Meanwhile, a bunch of people that are homeless are about to die from cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver related diseases and infectious diseases. We should probably focus more on those things.

Thirdly, can we talk about housing?

Housing is the only known cure to homelessness. That is what we really need. If you want to help people that are homeless, help us with this. We need a lot of help. And there is a lot you can do.

No one wants you to build the housing. If you look at things like Habitat for Humanity, it sounds great, but not a lot of multi-unit residential housing is built that way. Most of the time it is one-offs for one family that the local HfH determined qualified and chose. It is like winning the lottery. Those things look great, but they don’t help the people we need help with, by and large.

How about you and everyone at your (insert place of worship type) start a letter writing campaign to your local, regional, provincial/state, and federal elected representatives asking them to build more housing that is deeply affordable for people living on government assistance or minimum wage? And then when you all get the polite “Our government is working really hard to ensure all citizens have access to housing…” letter, respond with the “Thanks for the canned response, now please provide us details suitable for our congregation on how this is going to be put into action.” YOU have the incredible ability to have a unified voice in creating change in this regard. Similar strategies could work for getting more housing vouchers, rent supplements, and other types of subsidies.

How about you and everyone at your (insert place of worship type) undertake fundraising to specifically allow some people that are homeless in your community to get access to housing because they do not qualify for various government programs? In some communities these are people like non-citizens. In other communities it is the like of people that were dishonorably discharged from military service and are not permitted to access most programs for veterans. Or you could help sponsor one chronically homeless person in housing every year. It may not have the same reach as peanut butter sandwiches, or have the same media presence or photo opportunities as a turkey dinner, but it will allow someone to permanently end their homelessness.

Maybe your (insert place of worship type) has surplus land, buildings that are not used, or other assets that can be turned over into affordable housing or sold to gain money for the purpose of housing. In most communities there would be one or more established, professionally run not for profit organization with expertise in housing that could turn this gift into a lasting asset that forever ends homelessness for a larger volume of people that are homeless. There would even be an opportunity for ribbons to be cut, media to be involved, and perhaps even naming rights.

Want to do something more hands-on? Create “Welcome Home” starter kits for every household that moves out of homelessness into their own apartment. Think of everything a person needs to start an apartment – dishes, cleaning supplies, pots, pans, salt, pepper, shower curtain, bedding, towels, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, etc. – and have one delivered by member of your (insert place of worship type) every time a person moves into housing and wants one from you. You get face time with previously homeless persons moving into housing, and they get all of the essentials to get started in a new life.

Lastly, I am hoping we can talk about dignity and the value of personhood for a moment.

In the history of humankind, charity has never solved a complex social issue. It never will. It is not designed to do so. Charity is great at meeting immediate needs. But it is lousy at getting to the root of the issue and navigating the complexity of systems and individual needs. Critical analysis of most charitable responses to homelessness, unfortunately, demonstrate that the delivery of the charity has more value for the giver than the receiver. You feel good because you did something for someone in need. While you may have alleviated suffering over the short term, you did nothing over the long term – and maybe interfered with the work of other professionals unknowingly. You unintentionally created a dependent relationship between giver and receiver. Yes, a person that is homeless may need food, clothing, or a roof over their head tonight. But they will need it again tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that (and so on) if we don’t focus our efforts on housing to end homelessness.

If you think the issue is too overwhelming to focus on housing…if you are the sort of person that parlays this into the adage of the man throwing starfish back into the ocean…I can assure you that statistically (go ahead look at your census data and government assisted housing data, etc.) almost every single person in your community with the EXACT same issues as the person that is homeless is housed. Almost nobody with a mental illness ever becomes homeless. Almost nobody with a chronic health condition ever becomes homeless. Almost nobody with a substance use disorder becomes homeless. Almost nobody living in economic poverty ever becomes homeless. Almost nobody with terrible credit history or eviction histories becomes homeless. Almost all sex offenders and persons that have served time for other offences are housed. And so on. You see symptoms of homelessness and feed into the mythology of homelessness because you are not a professional in the field. It is really no different than people believing myths of waiting after they eat before swimming or thinking that if you consume chewing gum it will take years to digest – or any other such nonsense. As a professional I know how to separate fact from fiction when working with people to come up with solutions to their homelessness. Trust us in this field that have got graduate degrees, published papers, presented at conferences, undergone peer review of our work, continually work on our professional development, and network with other professionals on a regular basis.

I am begging you, if you are a person of faith, to pray and discern what is truly in the best interest of the people that are homeless you aim to assist. Would your deity be pleased if you were actually killing people with your kindness or interfering with the professional care they should be receiving? Is there a way you can practice your beliefs and end homelessness rather than manage homelessness? There is. Look deep into your heart and conscience. Please do so.

 

Sincerely,

A guy that has been at this for decades and is at a loss of what to do to help faith groups engage in solutions rather than charity

Multifaith

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

10 Responses to “An Open Letter to the Faith-based Group that Wants to Help People that are Homeless”

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  1. Chris says:

    Wow. This hits home pretty hard. Thank you for writing. Well worth reading –and praying about. God bless you and your heart to help those experiencing homelessness as well as those who need help helping.

  2. Erik Gunn says:

    You write — “Almost nobody with a substance use disorder becomes housed.” I’m thinking that might be a typo??

  3. Allyson Foster says:

    Some good points here; a much needed education piece. Praying it will be received and responded to despite the borderline condescending, prideful tone. I get the author’s frustration. Reminds me of the shelter I’m active at. The established regular volunteers sneering at the once a year do gooders ladling up soup and broadcasting on social media. But it’s a start; believe me I know many church goers who won’t even do this much. In my humble opinion it’s wise to model good stuff, affirm the positive heart motives that are there and find ways to encourage longer term, more effective help.

    • Maria Plummer says:

      Tone cannot be conveyed in written word. It can only be perceived. My perception is that this is written by someone desperate for faith based groups to understand the facts and rely on experts in this field rather than assume they know what is best solely based on their good intentions. I may be correct, I may not. However, I will not presume that I know so without asking the author first. Maybe for you, this hit a little too close to home and you are uncomfortable with that? Just a thought. I hope you will reconsider that this IS an education piece (a most valuable one at that), and that if we all play to our strengths (based on the data and not belief), we will all go so much further in ending homelessness. I also hope you will receive this comment with the genuine kindness that is intended.

  4. Mark Bryant says:

    Dear [insert name of expert, non-prof XO, project manager]

    I am sure you meant well…I am sure you thought your “constructive criticism” was necessary. I am sure you didn’t mean to be condescending.

    But here’s the thing…when you say “stuff you may be thinking of doing that will just get in the way of what experts are trying to achieve” you ignore that “the experts” have not solved this issue and you ignore that many of the boots on the ground have just as much or more experience as you in this field. And two things frustrate that grassroots movement…that government and society hasn’t solved this and that experts assume they have a better idea.

    I work with an equally complex national issue – gun violence. And one thing I have learned from doing this…don’t alienate your grassroots…and especially don’t alienated folks who are on the ground working. Grassroots volunteers appreciate the “experts” who show progress, show success… who lay out concrete plans for conquering the problem. Those who say “trust us, we’re the experts”…you are ignored. And because of that, it is going to take longer to solve this problem.

    Many of the solutions you have for the folks doing the work on the street require big money and big policy changes to work…and that takes time, and that takes established programs…but hunger and homelessness are in the NOW, not a future goal.

    Now, about the food thing…You distill your expert opinion down to “you are too stupid to not give them food poisoning, so stop”. NO. That generalization is usually used by those who want to protect their turf…their funding, their system. But hunger doesn’t get to wait until policy is resolved and funding is appropriate to provide feeding solutions for all the folks who are in need.

    Rewrite this…but focus on how the “experts” and grassroots volunteers can work together to solve the disparate, desperate causes and effects of homelessness. Solid, attainable goals which rely on the experts, the non-profs and the grassroots who just do what they can to help.

    I am not a person of faith…but I do support those who are, both monetarily and when organizations try to stop them from doing what they see as a need.

    The strategic goals are to eradicate homelessness and hunger…but the tactical goals are to keep those who are on the street warm, as comfortable as possible and fed…and hopefully society will begin to solve the strategic problem. The grassroots folks fill in the gaps where the experts and non-profs have not provided adequate solutions.

    I can tell you didn’t mean to be condescending…but until the experts solve the issue…embrace the volunteers, no matter their goals as they do what is in their hearts to help. Don’t tell them what they are doing wrong…show them the local program that either fulfills the niche in which they are helping or help them start their own program…embrace what they are doing right. I have no doubt that is what you meant…but that is not what you said.

    Peace,

  5. D. Anderson says:

    Great points once again Iain!! It was a pleasure to have met you down here in St. Pete area. I really cannot understand where some people get their “Holier than thou” ideals and attitudes when the obvious is pointed out..
    Through your teachings and the other “experts” I had worked with it became clearer to me that there are a lot of “enabler’s” out there doing their thing and walking away smiling thinking they were doing the greatest deed ever, when what they really have accomplished is keeping that homeless person homeless for another day. Sure there are any non-profits training and working on this dilemma that we face in cities all around the USA, but until local government takes the positive stance on homelessness and works together with those non-profits and sure, the religious entities as well, it will be status quo….
    Would say I look forward to hearing future classes when you come back to Florida, but have had to move on from the most meaningful and at times satisfying job I have had since leaving the service.. For that I send Thanks!!

    v/r
    D. Anderson

  6. RW says:

    Brilliant as always. Sound advice for both the experts and non-experts to read and reflect on. Thank you.

    For those focusing on a “condescending tone”, leave yourself out of it for a minute, please. Bottom line is your feelings have nothing to do with the point he is trying to get across. Homelessness isn’t sugar coated and neither is anything that Iain speaks on, especially on the topic of ending homelessness. Chances are that is it being received by some as condescending because he’s been preaching the same message for literally years, and working with these types of groups for years as well. There are only so many ways that you can state the same message.

    Making folks “as comfortable as possible” as they experience homelessness equals enabling an already complex situation and often times, does prolong an episode of homelessness. He is simply saying, do more than pop up throughout the year or around the holidays with hot meals and supplies. He isn’t saying not to do those things at all, but don’t let that be the entire scope of what you do to help those experiencing homelessness, take it up a notch. By even focusing on ONE person and ending their episode of homelessness, you actually contribute more to the overall effort of ending homelessness versus all the food and supplies you provide. Food and supplies do not end homelessness. Direct housing services and provision of the means to get into permanent housing is what is needed.

    The move-in box idea is a fantastic one, and most definitely a needed service. Make someone feel as warm, well-fed and comfortable as possible IN THEIR OWN HOME after having experienced the traumas of being homeless. This is actually another issue that folks in this subgroup face. When I moved into my apartment this year, outside of the normal deposits and such, I spent an additional $500 on just supplies and food (kitchen gear, bathroom gear, cleaning supplies, groceries, etc.) and let’s be honest, we don’t work in this field for the paycheck, so that did some temporary damage to my pockets. For someone coming from the streets or the like, and relying on a meager $1200 or less per month, obtaining many of these things at their own expense is out of the question. Completely.

    I encourage you to see the message here, and not the verbiage used to break down the message.
    Thanks again Iain, always looking out for your “condescending” words of wisdom. It is always a reality check.

    Signed,

    A person of faith AND growing expert in the field of homelessness, who agrees to the fullest with EVERY point made in this post.

  7. Rev Bruce Wright says:

    Excellent article and points. I have been working with, alongside, and in solidarity with the Homeless community for 30 years. I have been homeless myself before. I am with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and have a Radio show called the Revolutionary Road Radio show. Would love to have you on my show. Call me at 727-278-1547 or email me at Bruce@stpeteprogressives.org. thx so much, Rev Bruce Wright

  8. carolejustin says:

    awesome thank you