What can churches do to break the cycle of homelessness? (via Pat Morgan)

I recently read and reviewed Pat Morgan’s new book The Concrete Killing Fields. As I was reading the book I kept asking the question, “How can churches help?” And so, I decided to ask the author. Specifically, I asked the question What can individual churches can do to help the homeless and end the cycle of homelessness in their communities?

I just received Morgan’s response, and her permission to publish it on this blog. Consider this a “guest post” of sorts. Below is Morgan’s response:

What can churches do to help homeless people and help break the cycle of homelessness in their communities?

The easy answer to this question is that churches can do pretty much anything that they have the will and the resources to do as long as they abide by the laws of the land. The more complex answer is that what churches can do depends a lot on where the church is located, which is highly likely to be a major factor in the number and needs of homeless people seeking help from the church. Regardless, any church that wants to help needs to first discern what it is that God is calling the church to do. And if the church feels called to help, but some members are concerned because they don’t know how to help homeless people, it may help to remind them that God not only calls those who are able but also enables those who are called.

What can churches do to help homeless people?

Some of the ways that churches can help homeless people are relatively simple, and many churches are probably doing one or more of them already. If not, please do your homework first to be sure that what you want to do is needed and wanted. Resources are far too limited to compete with or unwittingly undermine what is already being done to help homeless people break the cycle of their personal experience of homelessness.

  1. Provide food. It can be soup and/or sandwiches, sack lunches, or a full meal. Whatever it is, please find a way to ensure that it is provided and discussed in a respectful manner. (No “feeding” programs, please. I “feed” pigeons in the park.) Better yet, provide more than a meal. Recruit church members or volunteers to sit with and get to know the homeless people you are serving. If possible, develop a rapport and link them to reliable services, shelter, treatment programs and housing resources that may be available.
  2. Collect and provide free, clean, appropriate clothing. If needed, and possible, carve out an unused space in your church and use it for a clothes closet. If the church doesn’t have enough volunteers or clothing, partner with another church or churches to get enough clothing and volunteers. Connect with local discount stores and ask for donations of clothing and/or shoes or discounts.
  3. If the community/city lacks sufficient shelter space, and the church has enough space and volunteers, consider sheltering homeless individuals or families, especially during inclement weather. To the degree possible, build a relationship with those you shelter and explore ways to help them secure services and housing.
  4. Alcohol and other drugs are major factors in creating and perpetuating homelessness. If possible, provide space and encourage participation in  meetings of 12-Step recovery programs, e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, AlAnon, AlAteen, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.
  5. If more than a few homeless people come to your church seeking help on a regular basis, consider partnering with other churches in the area (who are probably seeing many of the same people) to assess and assist them in securing the services that can help them break the cycle of homelessness.
  6. If none of these are possible, choose one or more programs that are serving homeless people and support it/them with donations and/or volunteers.

If the church has the resources and feels called to do more, it is especially important to do a lot of homework before proceeding. It is very costly in terms of time and money to develop and operate emergency shelters, transitional housing programs for people who need more intensive services than are usually offered in emergency shelters, and permanent supportive housing programs for homeless people with disabilities. If you don’t already know, take (or make) time to find out:

  1. How many individuals and families with children are homeless at a given point-in-time  in the church’s geographical area (town, city, region, rural area, state,
  2. The number who are reported to have underlying issues of mental illness, substance abuse, and/or domestic violence (it’s probably higher), and
  3. The emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, and permanent supportive housing programs available to help meet those needs.

Note: This is not difficult. In most cases, the information is readily available by contacting the lead agency/organization for the “Continuum of Care” in your city, region, or state. That information, plus a wealth of recent, reliable statistical information about homelessness, including HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) can be found on HUD’s website https://www.onecpd.info/coc/‎.

What can churches do to end the cycle of homelessness in their communities?

Given the structural and personal issues that create and perpetuate homelessness, I am convinced that we will end the cycle of homelessness in our communities when we end the cycle of:

  1. Teen and other unintended pregnancies that all too often result in fatherless children, school dropouts, unemployment and under-employment,
  2. Child abuse and neglect,
  3. Domestic violence,
  4. Substance abuse that can negatively impact children during the most critical years of brain development (0-3), and also fractures families, wrecks relationships and destroys friendships, and
  5. Incarceration of people with mental illness for minor offenses that might well have been prevented by appropriate, timely treatment.

Whatever church members can do, individually or collectively, to improve the effectiveness of the systems working to address the above issues will help end the cycle of homelessness in their communities—and the country.  Advocate for increased funding for affordable housing and a living wage that enables people to afford affordable housing. Advocate for increased funding and an effective system for delivering mental health and substance abuse treatment and recovery services for homeless and precariously housed individuals and families. Advocate as well for funding of programs for families with children, victims of domestic violence, veterans, and people with mental illness and/or addictions. Finally, remember that “if ye have done it for one of the least of these, ye have done it for me.”

Answer received and unedited via email on March 12, 2014 from Pat Morgan, author of The Concrete Killing Fields.

Thanks again, Pat, for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to my question.