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.
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